Lucian Kim

Take Me to Your Leader

Long before it became fashionable to go into the streets of Moscow and demonstrate against Vladimir Putin’s never-ending rule, Ilya Yashin was organizing anti-government pickets that drew more riot police than participants. As a result, the opposition activist is one of the Moscow protest movement’s most experienced leaders. Tomorrow he turns 29.

Yashin has spent his entire adult life in politics, becoming a head of the youth wing of the pro-western Yabloko party when he was still a teenager. In 2008 he split with Yabloko and joined the liberal Solidarity movement of former chess champion Garry Kasparov. When the first spontaneous protest against election fraud broke out in December, Yashin was jailed for two weeks alongside anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny.

Westerners can easily relate to Yashin. He envisions a European-style liberal democracy for Russia – and promotes nonviolent civic action to achieve it. The problem is that beyond the educated, urban middle class, few Russians share Yashin’s vision. After the chaotic reforms and dubious privatizations of the 1990s, Russian liberals are viewed with even less affection than the current government.

Although almost all of my Moscow acquaintances sympathize with the protesters, few of them have ever heard of Yashin. His relative obscurity could end up playing to his advantage, since Yashin at least doesn’t evoke the negative associations of older liberals like Boris Nemtsov. A poll released yesterday by the state-run VTsIOM agency found that participants of the June 12 protest clearly favored the younger generation, with 46 percent calling Navalny, 36, their leader. Leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov, 35, garnered 26 percent, and Yashin 10 percent.

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For months, Navalny and Udaltsov have evaded journalists with an inaccessibility in inverse proportion to their actual political power. Yashin, on the other hand, still answers his phone. I first interviewed him in December, and last week we met again at Café Jean-Jacques, a favorite opposition hangout. On Putin’s inauguration day in May, riot policemen hauled patrons from outdoor tables into waiting paddy wagons. Yashin and I sat undisturbed on Nikitsky Boulevard as we quaffed lemonade from pint-size glasses.

On the opposition’s demand for Putin’s ouster

At the June 12 rally, demonstrators symbolically approved a manifesto with concrete political demands, beginning with Putin’s resignation and ending with new elections, an amended constitution and a revamped criminal justice system. I asked Yashin how this document differed from any of the demands made at the winter rallies.

“If you said two times two is four half a year ago, it doesn’t mean that’s changed today. We don’t need to invent new demands just because the government is ignoring us,” Yashin said. “The problem isn’t that we’re insisting on our demands. The problem is that the government doesn’t want to discuss them with us. Instead, they send riot police and investigators to talk with us. Tensions are higher than they were in the winter.”

“The high oil price is the only thing preventing a bloody uprising.”

But why would Putin ever agree to resign voluntarily?

“He should have an instinct of self-preservation,” Yashin said. “The high oil price is the only thing preventing a bloody uprising.

“We are demanding that Putin compete on the same level as others. We need to liquidate the political monopoly. That should be the core of the political reforms.”

Yashin said he didn’t agree with the slogans heard at protest meetings that Putin belongs in jail. All the protest leaders understand that roundtable negotiations with the authorities and a possible amnesty for the ruling elite are the only alternative to bloodshed, he said.

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“In theory, a thief should go to jail, and there’s a basis for calling Putin a thief,” Yashin said. “But if Putin agrees to a peaceful transfer of power, that could lead to an amnesty. As any authoritarian leader, Putin is a prisoner to his own illusions. He’s in an information vacuum.”

On police pressure on opposition leaders

Yashin, Navalny, Udaltsov and other protest organizers have all come under increased pressure by law enforcement following the violence that broke out during the May 6 rally, a day before Putin’s inauguration.

Even the apartment of Kseniya Sobchak, society girl turned political talk-show host, was searched on the eve of the June 12 protest. Considering she is the daughter of Putin’s former political patron, the late St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the police raid looked like revenge for her opposition sympathies. Sobchak, it turns out, is romantically linked to Yashin.

Even though he is considered a mere witness to the violence in May, Yashin had laptops and hard drives seized by police. During a search of his parents’ apartment, his father’s computer and his mother’s iPad were confiscated, he said. Even his grade-school composition books were taken away for closer analysis.

“It’s banditism protected by the law,” Yashin said. “De facto, we’re suspects.

“They don’t understand that if they put us – Navalny, Udaltsov and me – into jail, the people who will come in our place will be much more radical.”

On the challenges facing the opposition

The opposition has spent the past half-year mobilizing mass protests in the capital. But when it comes to the tedious work of grassroots political organization on the local level, little has changed since Putin swept back to the presidency in March. Earlier this month, the ruling United Russia party handily won mayoral elections in the Siberian metropolises of Krasnoyarsk and Omsk.

I suggested the opposition was still incapable of real political action.

“Let the people be the judge,” Yashin said. But the people can’t do that until three conditions are met: free media, fair elections and independent courts.

“We should use all methods to pressure the government, including the street.”

I asked if the new law liberalizing the registration of political parties didn’t open up opportunities for the opposition.

“We should use all methods to pressure the government, including the street,” Yashin said. The political reforms rushed through parliament after the first wave of protests aren’t real, he complained, since the system is still skewed to prevent the opposition from coming to power through elections.

I replied that the protest movement’s coalition of nationalists, liberals and leftists was too broad to come up with a coherent political agenda.

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Yashin disagreed. In any authoritarian regime, people organize around common values, he said. What unites the protesters and makes them strong is their desire for free and fair elections.

On illusions

I returned to Yashin’s comment that Putin is a prisoner to his own illusions. Couldn’t the same be said about Yashin and other protest leaders? Wasn’t he in a tiny minority detached from the rest of Russia?

“No,” Yashin said, shaking his head. People in Russia with “common sense” all want their country to be democratic. The supposed clash between Moscow and the Russian heartland is artificial, he said.

I wasn’t convinced. Isn’t he suffering from an illusion just as Putin is, living in Moscow and interacting with like-minded people?

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Yashin allowed for that possibility but said the opposition understands the need to get out and meet with activists in the regions. (This week he is visiting Vladivostok.)

Yashin was reluctant to reveal the opposition’s future plans, except that the next big demonstration will probably take place on September 15.

I asked what kept him going.

“I believe in what I do,” he said. “When I was a kid I read some books that said good defeats evil.”

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