Marsh of millions*

I’ve been neglecting the different forms of opposition activity on this blog for quite a while; therefore the second March of Millions on 12 June seems to be a fine excuse to come back on this important topic. The essential thing is, of course, that the rally was held in an orderly and peaceful manner, unlike the original one a month ago that resulted in violent clashes with the police and risked derailing the process started in December by offering a pretext to the elite to tighten rules on demonstrations. Mind you, they do have tightened rules: Vladimir Putin had signed the new law on rallies increasing dramatically the fines for unsanctioned protests. It is time to enumerate the messages which the state of the opposition movement is sending us.

First of all, I don’t think that it is important to bicker about numbers. As in every case so far, amazingly different estimates have been published – this time ranging from ten thousand to two hundred thousand – most of them obviously and visibly wrong. Using the estimates of some of the organisers and the police, I would put the number somewhere between 30 and 60 thousand, but I am sure experts will prove me wrong both ways. Anyway, it is not the exact number that matters. What matters is that the opposition, in spite of tighter rules and the unpromising perspectives still managed to bring several tens of thousands of supporters onto the streets. This in itself is an asset: if nothing more happens but this continues, it will already put a dark cloud, a sword of Damocles over the heads of the elite, pushing them eventually to accept changes.

Secondly, however, the main problem of the opposition is that indeed, nothing more seems to be happening. Since December, the only major thing that the opposition achieved has been to maintain its presence on the streets – sometimes in truly innovative and visible ways – and extend its activities from the capitals to some of the cities in ‘Russia A’, that is, the urbanised and socially developed part of the country. In short, the opposition was able to maintain or even enhance its transmission facilities but it was not able to enhance and develop its message.

Looking at the videos taken at Tuesday’s protest action, I still had a feeling of looking at quite a motley crew – both when it came to protesters and speakers. Sources reported a large number of nationalists, along with some anarchists, fans of Pussy Riot, casually dressed liberals, environmental activists as well as serious-looking left-wing radicals. Speakers, likewise, were of very different ilk. The left radical Sergey Udaltsov suggested a “pre-emptive political strike” throughout the country before the regional elections in October. Ilya Ponomarev, a parliamentary deputy of A Just Russia spoke about the necessity to develop a program. Dmitry Bykov, expectedly, used poetic metaphors. Then there were liberals like Boris Nemtsov or Mikhail Kasyanov, speaking about a bloodless revolution, nationalists like Ivan Mironov, or journalists like Olga Romanova who said out openly what Udaltsov was also alluding, that protesters should “occupy the Investigation Committee”. A lot of different personalities conveying different messages, advocating very different solutions, all after each other without a visibly leading personality or any priority message whatsoever. Certainly, Yevgeniya Chirikova read out the manifesto of the organisers, calling for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution and a new electoral law. Not much progress in six months, I’d say. The “new opposition”, seemingly, is still struggling with the same challenges as in December.

A multi-colour opposition would not be a problem in itself – in fact, it could turn this variety into an asset. The opposition movements ending communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe were not homogenous either. Almost each one of them was kept together until the very first election or the final moments of the political transition, after which they disintegrated into different parties. The problem with Russia’s opposition is that it does not even seem to be able to reach the point the Eastern European opposition movements reached in the late 80s. It does indeed resemble the “Occupy” movement from this point of view.

And here’s another “but”. This does not mean that the new opposition is doomed to fail as a whole. There is indeed room for improvement, but protesters will most likely have to make peace with the fact that this will happen within the framework of the present system. The actions of certain groups in the State Duma – as the filibuster of A Just Russia and the Communists last week -, the perpetuated dissent represented by Aleksey Kudrin, or the recent statement of ex-United-Russia-member sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya about the “disappointed elite” willing to stand behind opposition demands all point in this direction.

As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, as long as the only common platform of opposition movements is the rejection of him and some of the instruments that stick to his name, no matter what the opposition occupies, he will stay the political trendsetter and others will be merely reacting. His best strategy would thus be not to give the opposition too much to reflect upon. This is a damn difficult task if you have an increasingly nervous elite around you, less and less sure whether you can protect their wealth and power. If Putin is to continue managing the situation, he must think twice before he sends riot police to raid the flats of opposition activists, while also thinking about other instruments to make the elite feel more secure than they are apparently feeling now.

There will be changes, but evolutionary rather than revolutionary – this is what both the opposition and the governing elite must understand.


*(Note: the title is a deliberate pun on Bolotnaya Square (meaning marsh) where the protests gained momentum last year, as well as the Russian term Марш Миллионов, the name given to Tuesday’s protest)

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