Spring is coming

Recent weeks in Russia, following the 10 December protest, were hallmarked by another large-scale demonstration yesterday, three important speeches (and interviews) by Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev and Aleksey Kudrin, as well as a staged scandal affecting Boris Nemtsov. These events show two main patterns of Russian politics crystallising in the aftermath of the Duma election: the general strategy of the ruling elite to divide protesters (who are indeed heterogeneous), and meanwhile to gain time by announcing a much quicker pace of reforms than previously anticipated. We should not forget, though, that we are in a transitional period, the present situation being also a prelude for the 2012 presidential election. 
Vladimir Putin’s four hour annual television address showed already the patronising attitude the Prime Minister has been trying to take up, downplaying the importance of protesters. However, in order to appease the ire of those in the streets Putin also gave hints that the government may embark upon some reforms, Potemkin-style as they might be. These included, among others, loosening the rules of party registration, bringing back gubernatorial elections (even if still subject to a presidential approval), setting up a ministry of nationalities to look after ethnic tensions as well as the completely ridiculous idea of setting up webcameras in polling stations (Gazeta.ru’s analysis available here).
These proposals were dutifully echoed by Dmitry Medvedev in his state-of-the-nation address to the new convocation of the State Duma less than a week after Putin’s one-man show. The President explained in a detailed manner how the easier system of party registration will look like. He didn’t dwell to much upon the issue of governors, which many interpreted as an intention to potentially go further than Putin’s proposal. I, on the other hand, am of the opinion that the elite has still not decided about the exact system to be implemented, and wants to keep all possibilities open, including that of backing down on this reform. This way, however, the government addressed two of the most important demands of the democratic opposition in the last few years.
Parallel to these, important personal changes were announced. The veteran former leader of United Russia, Boris Gryzlov resigned as Speaker of the Duma and was replaced by Sergey Naryshkin, another long-time Putin-ally, who promised a more substantial and open discussion in the new legislature. One of his deputies, Alexander Zhukov, is known as a smooth technocrat, but the new head of the presidential administration, Sergey Ivanov, a former KGB official is again a “fake replacement” – one strong Putin-ally for another. More importantly, the imminent dismissal of Vladimir Churov, head of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission was rumoured, and also suggested by Medvedev’s Human Rights Council. So far, the Kremlin has been ready to go just this far as far as changes are concerned. I think that Churov would be the next one to leave, in case the government feels the need of another sacrifice. But we’ll return to that in a minute.
Meanwhile, though, the other arm of the Kremlin’s strategy became visible as well. The government understood the fact that protesters are far from being united. Liberal Moscow intellectuals took the side of nationalist hardliners, maverick radicals, environmental activists, alas, even supporters of Putin who feel the need of changing the flawed system. These people certainly have a common enemy (United Russia and everything it represents) to fight against united, but there is a cacophony when it comes to agreeing what the second step should be. In a cleverly written opinion piece, Yulia Latynina argues against both Putin and a revolution, while leading figures of the radical opposition, such as Alexey Navalny, have threatened the government with protests becoming violent.
The government rightly supposed that these very basic ideological differences would undermine the notion of a common opposition. This is why the candidacy of a free-market-liberal Mikhail Prokhorov – may it be orchestrated by the Kremlin or not – will ultimately help Putin’s bid. This is why even the listeners of Ekho Moskvy radio preferred the languid Grigory Yavlinsky to Navalny as a potential presidential candidate of the social-liberal Yabloko party. And this is why we see constant idle debates between opposition supporters about organisation committees and speakers.
The opposition, at the same time, has one huge advantage over the ruling elite: their ability to use the Internet. As Brian Whitmore pointed out, the orchestrated scandal of publishing Boris Nemtsov’s private phone conversations was doomed to meet the same fate as the publication of Navalny’s emails. The opposition responded so quickly on Livejournal, Twitter and Dozhd TV that the scandal in fact backfired to the government, exposing how the siloviki make full use of their administrative resources to spy on opposition activists. As long as the opposition manages to master the Internet, community media will remain the solidest foundation of common action – and eventually, of settling internal disputes.
It was also the main driver of yesterday’s unprecedented protest action in Moscow, a demonstration that attracted – according to different estimates – somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 participants, and a surprise guest: former finance minister Alexey Kudrin. Kudrin, for the time being, seems to have become the second most important person in Russian politics, something I have been predicting for a long time. The last and most important indicator was the aforementioned interview of Putin, in which he cared to mention Medvedev only once and briefly, but spent a great deal of time to underline that Kudrin, despite his abrupt resignation from the head of the finance ministry, was still part of his team, even his personal friend (according to sources, Kudrin was the only member of Putin’s government ever allowed to address the Prime Minister in the informal “na-ty” way). And now he joined protesters, advocating the dismissal of Churov, fair elections, even new parliamentary elections.
It is obvious that Kudrin’s speech at the rally is a part of the strategy. Whatever happens, the next months will surely be abut less United Russia and more Kudrin. While the candidacy of Prokhorov is only a tool of distraction, I have no doubt that Kudrin’s words mean much more. He is becoming the new engine of Putin’s power machinery, based on an oncoming pact with the part of the opposition that is willing to make a compromise. Churov will most certainly be removed and repeated elections have become a real possibility. I don’t think Kudrin will be made head of United Russia, as the last couple of weeks destroyed all the credibility the party had still had. On the other hand, I could imagine Kudrin as the leader of a new party – one that he has already spoken about – and, after a repeated Duma election, the head of the new government instead of Dmitry Medvedev, who, after having lost almost all of his public profile, is slowly going down the drain.
All this after the presidential election in March, that is.
The above is only a possibility. Furthermore, it may happen only if Putin manages to win the election. He still has the most chances to do so, but he has to be very careful. Protests may arrive to a point where gradual reforms will not be enough for a compromise, and if Putin – whose popularity, according to surveys, stands below 50% – manages to grasp victory in the first round, many will cry foul. Much more people than now. If he doesn’t, the opposition will try (and perhaps manage) to support a common candidate in the second round. And in any case, there remains the question of how far a regime can go in reforming itself without removing its very foundations and symbols (in a nutshell, Putin). Maybe Putin should take lessons from Mikhail Gorbachev on this topic. Still, oddly as it might seem for the first sight, the best and safest strategy for Vladimir Putin is to ensure that the presidential campaign and the election are as free and fair as possible. He might still try to divide the opposition even more and make popular promises.
In short, he will have to act like a real politician. And who knows, maybe that’s how transition in Russia begins.
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