The other day I had lunch with a Russian friend who works for a state company run by one of Vladimir Putin’s cronies. My friend has studied and worked abroad, commands two foreign languages – and is opposed to Putin’s rule. The higher he rises in the company, the more he has to ask himself whether he is compromising his ideals for his career.
My friend is not unique. Young Russians who owe professional achievement to hard work and talent chafe at the nepotism that has characterized Russia’s transition to capitalism. Putin’s decision to return to the presidency cut short even the symbolic rejuvenation of power embodied by Dmitry Medvedev. Russia’s political crisis is as much about the emergence of a new generation as it is about the enfranchisement of the middle class.
Robert Shlegel, 27, is different. Born in Soviet Central Asia to a family of ethnic Germans, Shlegel didn’t move to Russia until age 13. Nashi, the Kremlin-sponsored youth movement, was open to provincial strivers like Shlegel, and before too long, he became its spokesman. In 2007, Shlegel was first elected to the Duma as a deputy for the ruling United Russia party.
I interviewed Shlegel in March, right before the presidential elections. Because he is accessible and open, I wanted to meet him again as a sort of reality check after the June 12 protest. His peers on the streets of Moscow contrast Russia’s archaic political system with advanced western democracies. Shlegel’s basis of comparison is the North Korean-style dictatorship he witnessed growing up in Turkmenistan.
On the mood in the corridors of power
I asked Shlegel what the mood was like in the ruling party after six months of unprecedented anti-government protests. Shlegel looked up nonchalantly from his cup of coffee.
“It’s a working mood,” he said. “It was all to be expected. The presidential elections took place without any significant violations, and Putin was elected with results that don’t need additional confirmation. It’s his victory.”
As for the violence that broke out at the protest on the day before Putin’s inauguration in May, Shlegel called it “an attempt to organize a Maidan and start rioting.” Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) was the central site of Ukraine’s pro-western Orange Revolution in 2004.
“We toughened the law on demonstrations so that it now corresponds to European laws.”
“We toughened the law on demonstrations so that it now corresponds to European laws,” Shlegel said about new legislation curbing Russians’ right to assembly.
It’s now standard operating procedure among Putin supporters to justify any violation of civil liberties with an appeal to “European standards,” as if Russia today also enjoyed European institutions – impartial courts and independent prosecutors – to safeguard them.
On the June 12 rally
The first rally after Putin’s inauguration filled the center of Moscow with demonstrators, despite the violence in May and the tough new law on protests.
Shlegel said he had been at the June 12 demonstration and observed fewer protesters there than at the winter protests. Rally organizer Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy from the Fair Russia party, had been lying when he told the assembled crowd that the turn-out was 200,000, he said. By Shlegel’s count, “22,000 to 23,000” attended the June 12 demonstration, with no more than 30,000 showing up at its peak.
Who was I to argue? I don’t play the numbers game, as important as it is for opposition leaders to inflate – and the authorities to shrink – them. What counts is that peaceful, anti-government protesters once again brought central Moscow to a standstill despite an earlier police crackdown. It was my impression that the June 12 rally easily rivaled any of the giant protests of the winter.
More significantly, Russia’s protests don’t seem to be going away on their own.
On the future of the protest movement
Shlegel said he expected more protests to take place – and the organizers to become more desperate. If opposition leaders are really serious about politics, Shlegel said, they should form political parties and participate in local elections.
“They’re the same people as before. Nothing unites them except protesting,” he said. “They can’t organize themselves. I’ve said many times that if they don’t start practicing civilized politics, they won’t get anywhere. They’re deceiving their own followers.
“The demonstrators are the same people as before. Nothing unites them except protesting.”
“It’s one thing to march in Moscow and another to help the regions,” he said. “Those who say they want Putin out don’t understand they’ll end up ruling Moscow and Moscow region.”
The capital’s protest leaders have no understanding for Russia’s business structures or relations between regional and ethnic clans, Shlegel said. He sounded more disparaging than he had in March, when he advocated dialogue with the opposition.
As we sipped our coffees around the corner from the Duma, opposition deputy Ponomaryov walked by, a big white ribbon pinned to his tweed jacket, an iPhone glued to his ear. We knew each other from the winter rallies, and he came to our table to shake my hand. Ponomaryov and Shlegel ignored each other.
On police raids on the homes of opposition leaders
On the eve of the June 12 rally, law enforcement searched the apartments of opposition leaders, confiscating computers and data-storage devices. Many were ordered to give testimony the next day as witnesses to the violence at the May demonstration.
Not everyone in the government was happy about the ham-fisted police action. Shlegel frowned when I asked for his opinion.
“Maybe someone was trying to curry favor,” Shlegel said about overzealous investigators. “They did themselves a disservice. Why was it necessary?”
Politically, the government should be focusing on advancing reform, including the restructuring of United Russia, Shlegel said. Economically, the priority should be on meeting social obligations even if Europe – the main consumer of Russian natural resources – slips into renewed crisis.
On the threat of violence
I asked Shlegel if he still thought that there was a threat of a “Libyan scenario.”
“Hypothetically there’s a danger,” he said. He wasn’t letting down his guard, he said.
Shlegel praised liberal oppositionist Vladimir Ryzhkov for returning to party politics and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov for founding the so-called Civic Platform.
“The others can only prepare a mutiny that will be suppressed,” he said. “There are fears they want to repeat the Arab Spring.”