Earlier this week, I popped over to Berlin to discuss Russia’s March 4 presidential election with German policymakers. An adviser to the co-ruling Liberal Party asked whether I’d buy or sell the Moscow protest movement if it were a company traded on the stock market. I didn’t hesitate: buy, but with a long-term view of return on investment.
This weekend the protest movement marks its three-month anniversary. (Not coincidentally, my blog does too.) Outraged over reports of irregularities in parliamentary elections, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets on December 10 despite the threat of a police crackdown. Yesterday, when the opposition to Vladimir Putin held its sixth big demonstration in downtown Moscow, it practically felt routine. Yet the first 90 days of the protest movement were fraught with danger.
The liberal intellectuals at the heart of the protests’ organization can take credit that the movement didn’t split over internal divisions and the unwelcome participation of Russian nationalists. The organizers kept up interest by limiting the number of rallies, changing their format and avoiding violence. Most importantly, they created a precedent for future street action. Since December, protests are no longer seen as a ritualized pastime of activist babushkas and eternal malcontents. Demonstrations have become a real weapon in the hands of an urban class committed to change.
Yesterday’s rally drew noticeably less people than earlier protests. Yet counting participants ignores the birth of a new political consciousness. Don’t worry about the opposition. Worry about how Putin plans to hang on for another six years without the support of the Russian capital.
Following tortuous negotiations, organizers and the mayor’s office finally agreed on Novy Arbat Street as the location of Saturday’s protest. After Monday’s rally on Pushkin Square had ended in arrests, the city was reluctant to permit another demonstration in downtown Moscow.
Of course Novy Arbat was a symbolic choice as it connects the Kremlin, the seat of the presidency, with the White House, where the prime minister’s office is located. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev laid the one-mile thoroughfare through an old Moscow neighborhood to demonstrate that the capital of world communism was a modern metropolis. The high-rises now show their age, and the street is clogged with Land Rovers and Porsche Cayennes heading to Moscow’s western suburbs. During the reign of Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Novy Arbat held the odd distinction of being the site of Europe’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade outside of Ireland.
When I exited the Arbatskaya metro station shortly after noon yesterday, I was met with the unusual sight of police trucks, buses and metal barriers lining the street. Cops were everywhere. If the Ku Klux Klan had planned a march through Harlem, the NYPD couldn’t have been better prepared.
The rally was to take place on the sidewalk and parking spaces on the south side of the street. If the need arose, the authorities were ready to close off traffic and let demonstrators spill out onto the road.
In front of the row of metal detectors at the entrance to the rally, a bearded protester was tottering about in a homemade robot costume that bore the words: “Robocop will clean out the swindlers and thieves from our Detroit.”
Nationalists were handing out black-yellow-white czarist banners. A liberal activist offered me a white flag from the Yabloko party. “Take one, it’s free,” he said. Nearby stood several women holding a flag with the company logo of Yukos, the oil company that was nationalized after its billionaire owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed by Putin.
It would be a bad day for the businesses located along the strip of pavement leading to the stage. The Toni & Guy hair salon and the Mi Piace pizzeria appeared to be closed. The Penthouse strip club presumably wouldn’t open until later, though you never know in Moscow, where the nightlife often lasts for days.
As I approached the front of the stage, I passed an old woman decked out in military ribbons, a Russian flag and two signs. The sign around her neck said: “I’m exchanging Putin for Khodorkovsky.” The other one said: “Enough government lies!”
Near the stage, a group of young nationalists were holding onto the edges of a giant czarist tricolor. Though they had tried to appropriate the protest movement for themselves, the nationalists were too disorganized and unrepresentative to have any impact besides bringing bodies (and lots of czarist flags) to the rallies.
Journalists had gathered around Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy from the Fair Russia party and one of Putin’s harshest critics in the parliament. Gudkov didn’t seem worried about low turn-out.
“It’s nothing terrible. We’ll take a small break and regroup,” he said. “People will warm up and hundreds of thousands will come out on the street. Who would have thought three months ago that even this many people would show up?”
Ilya Yashin, a young leader of the liberal Solidarity movement, also didn’t betray any concern.
“Our strategy remains the same: peaceful, nonviolent protest. We don’t have an alternative,” Yashin explained to reporters. The passage of the elections doesn’t mean there will now be fewer demonstrations, he said. On the contrary, growing social and economic problems will bring more people out to the street.
“We’re running a marathon. Tactical issues shouldn’t be cause for panic,” Yashin said. “It’s not a fight of one day.
“We’re on the right side of history.”
The demonstration began after 1:00. Vladimir Ryzhkov, the liberal opposition politician, was the lead MC as at all the previous rallies. He was assisted by journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, one of the main organizers, and Dmitry Gudkov, son of Gennady and a Duma deputy in his own right. The banners decorating the stage read: “Russia will be free;” “For new elections;” and “These aren’t elections/This isn’t a president.”
The stars of yesterday’s rally were young people who had been total nobodies just a few months ago. A byproduct of the December protest movement was a surge in civic activity, from volunteering to help at rallies to serving as election monitors. The most active and impatient young Muscovites ran as independent candidates in municipal district elections that coincided with the March 4 presidential vote.
A dozen election monitors took to the stage during the course of the afternoon. Some were famous, like actor Maxim Vitorgan or TV personality Kseniya Sobchak; others were unknown. All had their own stories of so-called “carousels” – busloads of people who voted multiple times – and shamefaced, ham-fisted election officials.
“We’ve all been humiliated and offended,” said Vitorgan. At the same time, he said, everybody who had participated as an election observer gained new, first-hand knowledge.
“Truth exists, whether or not it can be proven in court. It doesn’t belong to any legal category,” Vitorgan said.
“Putin is the president of numbers, not people.”
The crowd cheered.
“Don’t wait for any leaders. Act for yourself!”
Sobchak, who was whistled at the Christmas Eve rally, found her ground again yesterday. The daughter of the late St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the man who started Putin on his political career, she has long cultivated the image of a Russian Paris Hilton. When a free-wheeling political talk show Sobchak hosted was canned after just one episode last month, she at least partially redeemed herself in the eyes of the intelligentsia.
The most important thing for the opposition now is to formulate exactly what it’s for, Sobchak said: sweeping judicial reform, free media, meritocracy and an overhaul of the political system. When Sobchak is serious, she sounds like a wonk.
According to official results, Putin didn’t win even half the votes in Moscow. And making allowances for irregularities, Putin also missed the 50 percent mark in his hometown St. Petersburg, said Dmitry Oreshkin, one of Moscow’s sharpest political commentators and a leader of the Citizen Observer election monitoring project.
“What happened in the capitals will take place in the rest of the country,” Oreshkin predicted.
“We’ve learned not to fear, to use the law to our benefit and to force the government to show its hand,” he said. “You can’t reverse the process, just like you can’t put toothpaste back into the tube.”
Vera Kichanova took to the stage. A 21-year-old journalism student at Moscow State University, Kichanova ran for – and won – a seat in the local assembly of Moscow’s Yuzhnoye Tushino district on Sunday.
As Kichanova began to speak, I noticed a petite woman in a long down coat standing behind me. It was Yevgeniya Chirikova, the leader of the grassroots environmental movement against a highway through the Khimki Forest north of Moscow.
I asked Chirikova if the end of the election cycle meant the protest movement would now lose steam. No, she said, the elections had merely served the function of awakening Russia.
“Change at the top is the last step. Now it’s time for change to come from the bottom,” Chirikova said. “We need a positive program, and people are expecting a roadmap. It will be a long process.”
Will Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire who ran against Putin, be able to give the opposition a boost by forming a liberal party?
“He’s a resource oligarch,” Chirikova said disdainfully. “He’s the same as Putin. The only resource oligarch I believe in is Khodorkovsky.”
Probably the most unlikely hero of Moscow’s municipal assembly elections appeared on the stage: a former professional poker player named Maxim Kats. The lanky 27-year-old strode up to the microphone.
“When I started out, I was told I didn’t stand a chance. I’d need to get a haircut, buy a suit and change my last name. But I came as I am,” he said. “If I succeeded, so can you.”
“Let’s clean Moscow of swindlers and thieves!” shouted Konstantin Yankauskas, 25, another newly elected district assemblyman. He demanded early elections for the Moscow City Duma, in which Putin’s United Russia holds 32 seats and the Communists three.
“Enough talking, time to act!” called his fellow freshman assemblyman Maxim Motin, 28.
Yesterday Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger and the opposition’s most forceful orator, was in the crowd. His derisive nickname for United Russia has become so popular that a Google search in Russian for “swindlers and thieves” lists the home page of Russia’s ruling party as the first choice.
Sergei Udaltsov, the street revolutionary from the Left Front group, gave the day’s most inflammatory speech.
“We’re the power here!” Udaltsov shouted, borrowing a Navalny slogan.
“March 4 was an orgy of the swindlers and thieves,” he said.
“If these weren’t elections and Putin isn’t the president, what does that make Putin?”
“Putin is a thief!” the crowd chanted back.
“Not only is he a thief but a usurper,” Udaltsov cried.
At Monday’s rally, Udaltsov had urged protesters not to leave Pushkin Square, provoking the police to intervene with mass arrests. Now he was proposing regular demonstrations at Pushkinskaya. “The warmer it gets, the more often!” he said
A week before Putin’s inauguration on May 7, Udaltsov called for “a march of a million.”
A new goal has been set.
After the rally, I retraced my steps to Arbatskaya with a former Russian colleague. We expected Udaltsov to try to continue the protest but there was no sign of him – just a tight cordon of riot police around the Defense Ministry located behind the metro station.
It was 4:00. We walked in the brilliant sunshine up the Boulevard Ring to Pushkin Square. OMON riot police were sitting in parked city buses or milling about in their body armor. Interior Ministry troops, in contrast, sat huddled in the back of gray covered trucks.
Pushkin Square was occupied by an army of riot policemen and a handful of reporters. Later I learned that Udaltsov hadn’t wasted any time after the rally. He was arrested outside the Defense Ministry (click here for a video) when he called on protesters to join him on Pushkin Square every Saturday afternoon this spring.