The past 100 days have been pretty extraordinary in Russia with the rise of a protest movement and the return of something that is beginning to look like genuine politics. I have no doubt that this a very significant moment and even if it will not lead directly and immediately to substantive change, in its own two-steps-forward-one-step-back way I think it is moving the country towards meaningful democratization. Nonetheless, I have been amazed by some of the hyperbole, not so much or just the expectations of radical change now but the presentiments of doom. Just for a moment, let me list them:
- A Coup. Given initial hopes/fears that the protest movement would overnight catalyze into something nation-wide and cross-class, the thought that Putin might launch or a coup or that siloviki might themselves stage one either on his behalf or to prevent concessions to liberals might have a superficial appeal. Thus, Andrei Illarionov has warned of a “GKChP-2” (although in fairness, this is as much a prediction of a crack-down, as below, as an actual coup). As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t see this as even remotely possible.
- A Crackdown. Rather more plausible is the fear that before or after the elections, Putin would launch a major campaign of repression. At the moment, there is certainly a campaign to marginalize some political actors and silence certain voices and media outlets (most glaringly, Ekho Moskvy). However, that’s a way away from a more comprehensive crackdown and it is questionable whether or not Putin would want to, let alone could. One of the indications, after all, is to be found in the tedious logistics of terror (witness the preparations made in 1991 or which suggest Stalin was gearing up for a new purge when he died), from the stockpiling of handcuffs to the preparation of new detention facilities — and I’ve seen no signs of any.
- An Uprising. Would the protesters storm the Kremlin like extras enacting those ahistorical Soviet 1917 movies? Some might be tempted to take at face value Navalny’s statement that “I see here enough people to take the Kremlin and the White House right now, but we are peaceful and won’t do that just yet.” This is nonsense, though. First of all, there is no evidence that Navalny was doing anything more than succumbing to the rhetorical temptations of the crowd and the moment; his subsequents acts such as meeting with investment bankers and possibly accepting a seat on the Aeroflot board do not suggest a self-martyring firebrand (he’s no Udaltsev). Secondly, this is exactly the kind of direct challenge that the authorities could handle, giving them an excuse to destroy the opposition, not least as the security forces’ discipline and morale is not so damaged as to prevent them following their orders and resisting any such attack. And frankly everyone knows that. Of course, the conspiratorialists who love the whole ‘McFaul as an agent of revolution’ line might see darker plans afoot, but seriously, Navalny is no Lenin and 2012 no 1917.
- Radical provocations. Of course, then there is the line that truly Machiavellian radicals are seeking to foment an over-reaction by the state in order to radicalize the masses and legitimize revolt. Security Council secretary and former FSB director Nikolai Patrushev, for example, asserted that “not everyone is satisfied with the peaceful and organized nature of the demonstrators’ actions, insofar as their behavior does not give cause to accuse the authorities of ‘mass repression of dissent’… After all, it is just those kinds of accusations that are the typical pretext for ‘color’ revolutions and large-scale outside interference in the internal affairs of one or another country.” In other words, some radicals want the OMON to be kicking down their doors, to justify revolution or even foreign intervention. (Seriously? UN blue helmets in Tomsk? NATO peacekeepers in Yaroslavl?). I suppose some will harbor such Troskyite “better is worse” kind of views, but the way in which the protest movement so far has, if anything, sought to woo the police and avoid open confrontation hardly suggests much of a constituency holding such views.
- Civil War. A civil war, a full-scale military conflict, requires rival armed factions with the will and ability to battle for power across the country. Is this even remotely conceivable? Some would appear to think so. Prokhorov raised the prospect in abstract terms in an interview with Der Spiegel, but context makes it clear that this was more a philosophical comment on the dangers in a lack of dialogue than a serious prediction. However, from an unusually iffy piece in the Jamestown Foundation EDM, usually a serious and well-researched source, we had this bit of weasel-wording: “While it may be alarmist to raise the specter of Civil War at this stage, no-one should take this scenario of Civil War off the table.” Well, frankly I am comfortable enough taking it off the table and, indeed, ejecting it from the apartment altogether.
- Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Oh no, that was the movie Ghostbusters, wasn’t it?
Of course, it’s possible Bad Stuff could happen. Now that it looks as it Putin can get more than 50% of the vote in the first round by fair(ish) means — in other words thanks to state control/influence over the media, the use of administrative perks and powers and some judicious control of certain constituencies such as the military and Chechnya — then I think the chance of some dramatic event like the bombing of apartment buildings is unlikely. It is also feasible that there will be more and more serious eleventh-hour kompromat emerge or the like. But in the main, the prospects are thankfully sub-Apocalyptic, at least for the moment. As and when there is a real threat to the political (and thus social and economic status quo) then the gloves may come off, but for now, while we will no doubt continue to be amazed, horrified or inspired by the unfolding events in Moscow, we need not sink into alarmist hyperbole.