In my most recent column in the Moscow News, Echoes of 1991, I considered the recent street violence in Moscow in the context of the mass protests in support of Boris Yeltsin in spring 1991. Of course, there are limits to all historical analogies; in particular there is no Boris Yeltsin to unite the anti-Kremlin forces and Russia 2012 is in a much better place that the USSR in its final — terminal — year. Ironically, one of the key engines of the current protest movement is, after all, economic success and the consequent rise of a middle class not dependent directly on the state, compared with the economic crisis of the late Soviet Union. My key point, though, was to compare how those protests, or rather how the ways in which they were managed by the authorities, were regarded by hard-liners, more moderate forces within the Kremlin and the radicals.
I wrote that on Monday, right after the protests (it didn’t appear until Thursday thanks to the extra long Victory Day meets Presidential Inauguration holiday) and since then I’ve been wondering which faction and emotional response is in the ascendant. The spectacle of people being rounded up just for wearing white ribbons and presidential mouthpiece Peskov’s assertion that the “livers of protesters should be smeared across the asphalt” for hurting OMON riot police certainly suggests a hardening line. If the rumors are true that Udaltsov and Navalny are facing charges of incitement to riot under Article 212 of the Criminal Code, punishable by up to 2 years in prison, then that also suggests a toughening stance. The names of whoever are the Interior Minister, General Prosecutor and head of the Investigations Committee in the new government (though the last is unlikely to change) may also tell us something about the anticipated future response.
This was possibly inevitable given the circumstances, the personalities of Putin and those around him and the natural instincts of the state. In the immediate circumstances, the violent frustration of a fraction of the protesters has done their cause undoubted harm.
It has played into the hands of the hard-liners. No government can sit back as extremists storm barricades to get to the seat of power, just as OMON will respond when challenged or attached. Those who have been advocating a more general crack-down now have the perfect opportunity, though.
Secondly, this will further fragment the opposition, attracting a violent element who just want an excuse for a brawl and alienating many others. In particular, violence will not play well in the provinces. The opposition is still a metropolitan, middle class phenomenon. It does not seem to have much to say to the ordinary Russian of the rural township or the grimy, de-industrializing smokestack city. The recent victories of opposition candidates in Togliatti and Yaroslavl, precisely by campaigning on local and practical concerns, suggested that they could bridge this gap. After this week, those bridges could be burning.
Of course, the Kremlin won the day. How could they not? Even without reinforcement, Moscow alone has 50,000 police, 30,000 security troops and another 15,000 soldiers and Kremlin guards. However, this is hardly the kind of backdrop Mr Putin wanted for his inauguration. He is not a man to take reverses and perceived insults in his stride, so will likely be looking for payback. More to the point, much of the reason for his impressive political longevity — beyond healthy oil and gas revenues — has been his ability to cultivate an image of effortless and unchallengeable supremacy. He has seemed more like a tsar ruling by divine right than just another politician.
Public protests following last year’s parliamentary elections; the need to make grand (and expensive) promises and campaign in a way he had never had to before in the presidential campaign; open violence on the streets of Moscow. These all challenge the very foundations of his system, which has depended on public complacency and elite complicity. If ordinary Russians begin to question the sureness of Mr Putin’s grip and his judgement, then they begin to realize they have a real choice.
Here we come back to the Spring 1991 parallel. Then, Gorbachev came to realize how dangerous was his ‘winter alliance’ with the conservatives and he turned back towards a reformist route. Ultimately, the hard-liners ended up launching their short-lived August Coup and in the process destroyed any last hopes of salvaging a new Union from the ruins of the USSR. (The irony is that Kryuchkov and the other members of the vosmërka ‘gang of eight’ should in some ways be celebrated as founding fathers of the new Russia!) However, this time the hard-liners are in charge and the more moderate voices are for the moment sidelined. Who is there to counsel caution and conciliation to Putin?
But the majority of the new Russian elite — even the silovik types — are not, in my opinion, hard-liners or soft-. Instead, they are pragmatic opportunists. If Putin is able to quell the opposition with a mix of intimidation, spending and political technologies, then well and good. However, in my conversations with figures within and associated with the Russian security apparatus, I cannot help but sense an unease. They will not sit back and let radicals storm the Kremlin, and they are worried about preserving their powers and virtual impunity (most seem to have shady sidelines in business that help them live very well).
But they saw the USSR collapse, they see the news from Libya and Syria and realize that no regime lasts for ever. They know they won today, but they know that this is not the end of it. What will they do if the choice is between long-term and major repression to protect Putin or quietly telling him it is time to go? The radicals will not force Mr Putin out of the Kremlin; but his response to them may, in the long run, do it for them.