I am writing this blog in my Moscow office, after a day of talks with my friends and mere acquaintances, some of whom are enthused about going to the protest rally on Saturday. The pronounced aim of the mass rally, tentatively sanctioned by the authorities to take place near the “backyard” of the Kremlin, on Bolotnaya square, is to protest against falsifications during the parliamentary elections that took place last Sunday.
My feelings about this rally are deeply ambivalent, and I will try to explain why.
I like expressing my views on the street, and gladly took part in a number of demonstrations since they began in Russia in 1989, until I nearly got arrested during a demonstration in the year 2009. My sin was coming to the prostest with a self-made poster to a rally of the Fair Russia party (the Russian name is Spravedlivaya Rossiya, the party positions itself as social-democratic). The poster urged the Central Electoral Committee’s chairman Vladimir Churov not to plagiarize the election figures from the United Russia’s leader Boris Gryzlov. That was a hint to the then recent city local Duma elections, at which United Russia purportedly got more than 70 per cent of the vote, allowing it to fill all positions inside the Moscow city Duma, except three, left to the communists as an insulting consolation.
As soon as I joined the crowd of “fair Russians” with mostly florid (and obviously officially approved) slogans about larger pensions and better salaries, two plain clothed agents without any signs of identification destroyed my poster, grabbed me by my shoulder and started to push me out of the crowd. My friends, the true social democrats who happened to be marching at my side, stood up for me – not so much with force, but with lots of noise. The agents ultimately let me go.
Interestingly, Fair Russia’s leader Sergei Mironov, speaking to the demonstrators in a few minutes after my spat with the agents, blasted Gryzlov with words much harsher than the ones written on my poster. Several trade union activists standing next to him also pulled no punches while talking about the government’s economic policy. What Mironov, a man with influence, was allowed to do so, a regular marcher was not. That gives you an idea of the complexity of Putin’s Russia, where the rich and influential people have greater opportunity to criticise the regime to which they owe their well-being, than the poor and underprivileged, who actually don’t owe the regime anything.
Strangely, at the time, in 2009, the same people who now enthuse about going to Bolotnaya square shrugged their shoulders and expressed their surprise at the mere idea of coming to a demonstration with my own poster. Obviously, Internet and social networks, the two moving forces of this coming Saturday’s protest, have a huge cumulative effect. Notions that seemed to fit a handful of idealists only a few weeks ago suddenly take hold of the masses. During the non-Internet age this was called herd mentality. Now it is called the Facebook effect.
Having a natural sense of aversion against herd movements, including fashion, I don’t see the logic of this sudden conversion to radicalism. Why, after several years of total silence, should people protest against the first RELATIVELY FAIR election, where United Russia got less than 50 per cent of the vote (for the first time since 2003)?! Numerically the success of the opposition looks even more impressive. United Russia got 12 million less votes than during the previous Duma elections of 2007 (then 45 million voters supported United Russia, now – only 33 million)?
Were there irregularities or even outright breaches of the law during the election? Of course there were, but they did not have a massive character, since the official results, just like in 2007, largely coincided with the results of the exit polls. Including the exit polls conducted by centres known for their criticism of the government. The sensation of this election came at nine o’clock in the evening, when Obshchestvennoye Mneniye Foundation (FOM) revealed its exit poll which gave United Russia 46 per cent. Later support for UR was shown to be 49 per cent – again no dramatic difference from the result of the FOM exit polls or the VTsIOM centre, which gave United Russia 48 per cent.
So, what are we supposed to demand on Saturday? The organizers of the meeting mention a rerun of elections with participation of all political parties that had been denied registration during the last five years (2007-2011). OK, let’s suppose that the liberal party Parnas, headed by the former prime-minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former first vice-premier Boris Nemtsov, is registered. Will its participation change the results in a significant manner? The success of the communists and Mironov’s Fair Russia show that the electorate is moving left – away from the neoliberal paradigm of the 1990s embodied by Kasyanov and Nemtsov, who had both been in power during Boris Yeltsin’s time in office, seen by many as the most corrupt period in Russia’s recent history. So, there is little doubt that Parnas won’t get much more than the three per cent, which is the same number the Yabloko party received this week; Yabloko being the “untarnished” liberal party headed by Grigory Yavlinsky – Russia’s evergreen promising liberal who had never been in power.
Don’t get me wrong – I also think that Parnas and the currently unregistered Social-Democratic party of Russia (SDPR), where I belonged until it was stripped of its registration in 2007, should be allowed to enter official political life again. I just don’t think a rerun of the elections and the general radicalization of politics in the country is the best way to do it.
Vladimir Putin has a certain element in his character – he never does anything under pressure. You may ask, you may suggest – and you may get what you want. But he never allows himself to be FORCED to make concessions, he views efforts to do so as blackmail. And he never cedes to blackmail, arguing (he did it many times) that every such concession will only make blackmail worse.
So, what is Putin’s interpretation of the meeting, officially organized by Sergei Udaltsov (former chairman of the pro-communist Vanguard of Red Youth) going to be? Right: you give them a finger, they want the whole hand. Look how they interpreted the loss of the majority by United Russia.
Let’s return to the blessed years 2007-2011, with no “thaws” in sight. Is this the result that Russian democrats should try to achieve? I don’t think so.
Dmitry Babich is a well-known Russian columnist and political analysy. His columns appear regularly in Russia Profile magazine. He is a regular contributor to the Polish bimonthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia.