On one level, today’s day of protests in Russia and especially Moscow followed a trajectory which by now is all terribly predictable. The speeches (now with added Gudkov). The rival estimates of turnout (14,000 in Moscow according to the police, maybe 100,000 by some oppositionists’ counts, but probably a maximum of a little under 25,000). The snide putdowns from the Kremlin spin-apparat (apparently Putin was too busy with important stuff like meeting Belarusian autocrat Lukashenka to follow the protests). Radical leftist Sergei Udaltsov’s arrest by the OMON (I suspect he’d be offended if he didn’t manage to get himself detained at such events). It would be easy to be blasé (I notice that it didn’t make the world news front pages of either BBC or NPR), or even to make a snap judgement that the protest movement was fizzling out.
However, my own snap judgement is that things have changed, and in some ways today’s March may signal some deeper developments:
1. The social dimension and the slow arrival of real politics: One of the obvious weaknesses of the opposition movement, at least when it tries to operate on the broad stage, has been its lack of any positive message. In part because many of its leaders are, frankly, political dilettantes, in part out of a desire not to break apart a still-fragile coalition, there has been a concentration on the simple, palatable but ultimately banal message of new, fair elections and “Russia without Putin.” There has been strikingly little about just how this Putin-free Russia would differ in essence and policy from the present model. Nor has there been any real attempt to create a policy platform able to reach out to the silent majority of Russians with practical grievances but little real sense that ousting Putin would resolve them. These protests saw the first steps towards addressing this issue, with social questions now being raised, even if that is a long way from actually formulating concrete policies in response. A first step only, but an important one.
2. The leftist turn? Friday’s Power Vertical podcast focused on the possibilities for leftist movements to capitalize on this (although neither Brian Whitmore nor Kirill Kobrin seemed especially sanguine), but it is noteworthy that the Communist Party played a role in this march. In the main, it is hard to see the KPRF as communist, even in the Soviet sense of the word, but while most of its leaders seem to have become used to comfortable lives as the mock opposition, there are members who genuinely believe in greater social justice and other leftist values; after all, placards at the march called for free medical care and the like. As Zyuganov and co. seek to assuage them without rocking the boat excessively, they nonetheless find themselves forced to offer some support to the genuine opposition. This may be important in the future as the KPRF has a political machine of which the protesters can only dream. If even part of the KPRF become connected to the protest movement in a meaningful way — perhaps through Udaltsov — then this will represent a significant practical advantage.
3. More street fighters, fewer celebrities. Navalny may be something of an enigma, even now, but he is willing to put himself on the line. Udaltsov is a street-fighter politician, when push comes to shove. Nemtsov and Kasparov were there and although they may be of a past and slightly faded generation, they have not hesitated to challenge the Kremlin. Gudkov was in good form after his expulsion from the Duma and, shall we say, robustly defiant final speech; I suspect his instincts are that any attack deserves a good, solid counter-attack. No Prokhorov, no Kudrin, indeed, no Yabloko (apparently they didn’t like the presence of nationalist and communist ‘red-brown’ elements in the organizing committee. Is this a bad thing? No. Figures such as Prokhorov, who play at dissent so long as it is safe, comfortable and controllable, add neither clout nor luster to the opposition and ultimately are unlikely to press an advantage against the Kremlin. If the goal of the opposition is truly to oust Putin and his regime and bring about regime change, then they will not do that with half-measures; it will be earned through passion, anger, sacrifice and shrewdness, not radical-chic or fashionable poses.
4. The first glimpses of the silovik-opposition. Gudkov’s treatment has begun to make him something of a symbol for those within the security apparatus uncomfortable with current policy. Furthermore, this march saw more uniformed military personnel, including paratroopers, border troops and — in a satisfying, if meaningless parallel with 1917 — sailors. They seem to have been motivated primarily by social justice issues, and this underlines the extent to which, if the opposition can credibly appear to address social justice, corruption and quality of life questions, they may acquire a much great support base.
5. A nervous Kremlin? This protest was officially capped at 25,000 in Moscow and, opposition rhetoric aside, there was little prospect of it being much larger. Nonetheless, the authorities deployed 7,000 police, OMON and MVD VV Interior Troops, for a 3.5-to-1 ratio, which is distinctly higher than in other, recent protests. Furthermore, there appears also to have been a greater mobilization of auxiliary police druzhinniki. I am relieved and pleased that the protests passed over essentially peacefully, but with the police beforehand talking about the threat of “provocations,” I confess I was wondering if pretexts would be arranged for a violent dispersal of the marchers. Given that former Moscow police chief and now Interior Minister Kolokoltsev appears still to believe — rightly — that such a maximalist response would only create martyrs, maybe it is that his view prevailed. However, there is no escaping the wider sense of a campaign of intimidation (indeed, the comments about provocations themselves may have been intended to deter marchers by hinting at violence), from the series of high-profile prosecutions (including the Pussy Riot case) to the new laws controlling protest. Putin may not yet have come to terms with the new political environment and created a strategy to respond, but in its absence, the Kremlin’s default is to toughen its line and lean harder. This may work in the short term, but in the longer term it simply radicalizes the opposition and increases the risks of an open clash.
Rallies, after all, change nothing. However, if this March helps galvanize the opposition into turning to real politics (even if that means opening up internal divisions over policy), woo the KPRF machine and members (even if Zyuganov and his ilk are lost causes) and reach out to wider constituencies, then that would reflect the beginning of a real change.