The politics of fear is a contradiction in terms; there is no such thing. Politics is open debates and backroom deals, promises and lies, compromise and opposition. Politics is human speech. Fear is an animal instinct. In Moscow, fear is taking the place of politics. And it’s the politicians who are afraid.
Vladimir Putin has become a victim of his own system, designed to streamline political power in Russia into one straight, vertical line. There is no room for free and fair elections, an impartial judiciary, a vibrant civil society or independent TV news. As a result, there aren’t any feedback mechanisms that can instruct and correct the government’s actions.
The Putin magic has never been based on a cult of personality, but on a steady, undeniable rise in living standards. When middle-class Muscovites took to the streets in December to demand immaterial things such as political representation and media freedom, Putin had nothing to offer them.
For lack of an ideology of his own, Putin rallied his own forces by equating the protesters with traitors. Yet even after his election to a third term on Sunday, Putin kept up the war rhetoric, filling the center of Moscow with thousands of policemen and Interior Ministry troops as he gave a teary victory speech.
Russia has no tradition of resolving internal conflicts via broad public discussion. In the past century, the country has seen a revolution, a civil war and mass repressions against millions of citizens branded domestic enemies. Less than 20 years ago, Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, used tanks to attack his opponents in parliament.
The organizers of the four big demonstrations held in Moscow since early December were planning a post-presidential election rally on Pushkin Square for Monday evening. Leaders of Russia’s marginalized liberal opposition, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Garry Kasparov met with Left Front activist Sergei Udaltsov, journalist Sergei Parkhomenko and others yesterday afternoon in the Andrei Sakharov Museum, named after the Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. A portrait of the man is mounted on an exterior wall with the words “Andrei Sakharov, thank you!”
If the December meetings of the organizing committee were open to the press and broadcast live over the internet, yesterday’s gathering was held behind closed doors. A couple dozen journalists waited in a hall on the second floor with worn wood floors and plywood exhibition walls. For such a towering figure in contemporary Russian history, the Sakharov Museum seems disproportionately modest. Putin, who had served as a KGB agent, chose to embrace Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A Russian traditionalist, Solzhenitsyn didn’t hide his disdain for Western culture.
Finally Parkhomenko, Kasparov and Udaltsov appeared with somber faces. Udaltsov, a clean-shorn revolutionary who has been jailed for his activism, said that Monday’s rally would be peaceful and legal. Some opposition leaders had called for demonstrating on Lubyanka Square, in front of the FSB secret police headquarters, or surrounding the Kremlin with a human chain. Kasparov, the former world chess champion, said the elite Dzerzhinsky Division had been moved into the city and was armed with live ammunition.
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I arrived at Pushkin Square shortly after 6:00 p.m., an hour before the beginning of the rally. The difference from previous demonstrations was palpable when I emerged from the metro. Young men in wool caps and dark down jackets stood around in clumps. Riot policemen with helmets and billy clubs loitered near the metal detectors, assisted by beefy civilian helpers with red armbands. Orange dump trucks blocked off the square from Tverskaya Street, downtown Moscow’s main artery.
I took the backstage entrance next to the gargantuan Pushkinsky Cinema, built by the Soviets on the site of a monastery. I chatted with a couple of the organizers who were anxious that Nemtsov, Udaltsov and others were planning to march to the Kremlin after the rally. The organizers agreed with me that there was a different mood in the air. They expected provocateurs to be in the crowd. The overwhelming police presence had evidently intimidated many ordinary Muscovites from attending.
The streets bordering Pushkin Square were only filling up slowly, and I could see traffic moving on Tverskaya. The mayor’s office had promised to close off Moscow’s main shopping street if necessary, but the need wouldn’t arise.
The last big rally on February 4 was remarkable for the humor and variety of the home-made signs demonstrators brought with them. Yesterday there were almost no signs, just the banners of various liberal political movements. The black-yellow-white flags of the Russian nationalists were visibly absent; according to news reports they were planning a march of their own.
“Russia without Putin!” the crowd started chanting at 7:00 p.m. A freezing wind was blowing across the square and the dull gray sky was turning black. “Thief! Thief!” the protesters shouted.
There was none of the joyfulness of previous demonstrations. No Russian rock legends played for the crowd. The reality of Putin’s victory, as predictable as it had been, was still sinking in. According to official results, Putin had swept more than 63 percent of the vote nationwide, trailed by Communist perennial Gennady Zyuganov with 17 percent. In Moscow, however, Putin had fallen short of 47 percent, with billionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov winning more than 20 percent of the vote.
The energy of the past demonstrations had intoxicated participants with solidarity and empowerment. On the day after the presidential vote, the protesters were reminded of their voicelessness.
With the next national election – for the Duma – not scheduled for another five years, the street opposition is struggling to stay relevant. Yesterday the older leaders – Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Putin’s first prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and social democratic Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov – called for the liberal opposition to unite. Prokhorov promised to found a new party.
The younger generation was more radical.
Udaltsov, 35, whose uncompromising stance has gained him respect, was met with cheers.
“If this was the most honest election, then why the hell is Moscow an occupied city?” Udaltsov asked, referring to the police clampdown. “I’ll never recognize these elections!”
He announced that he wouldn’t leave Pushkin Square until Putin left power. “I’m not joking,” he said. “We’ll stand here. We’ll be thankful for any support.”
Ilya Yashin, 28, one of the leaders of the liberal Solidarity movement, took to the stage with a smile.
“Hi everybody!” he shouted.
“For the first time in 12 years we saw the tears of the dictator!” he said. “Did we see tears when apartment buildings were blown up in Moscow? No! Did we see tears when the Kursk submarine sank? No! Did we see them when the Moscow metro was blown up?
“Friends, that was fear we saw in the eyes of the dictator. We saw weakness and a person who is unsure of himself. He himself knows that he’s lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
“Has a war started in our country? Why is there so much police in the center of our city? Who’s he planning to defend himself against?
“They insulted us yesterday. We are the people. We are Russia.”
Ilya Ponomaryov, 36, Gudkov’s fellow Duma deputy from the Fair Russia party, told the crowd he would stay after the rally to use his parliamentary status to meet with citizens. “We won’t leave!” he shouted.
Finally the protesters’ biggest hero took to the stage: anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, 35, who together with Yashin and other activists served a two- week prison term for trying to march on the Central Election Commission on December 5. Navalny hadn’t spoken in public since his fiery speech at the demonstration on Christmas Eve.
“I heard many were disappointed. What else did we expect other than swindling and thievery?” Navalny said. “Again they robbed us.”
“Who is the power here?” he shouted three times into the winter night.
“We are!” was the answer each time.
“We are the power here,” the crowd started chanting on its own, briefly interrupting Navalny.
“They are very sick people. They suffer from bulimia. They’re always hungry,” he said. “He gorged himself on oil and gas and pipelines and roads and train stations. He eats and eats and eats. They can’t stop.
“Who will stop them?”
“Who will stop them?”
Like most of the speakers, Navalny tried to provide an answer to the question on all the protesters’ minds: what now?
People must remember two words, truth and faith, Navalny said. He confessed that the demonstrators had overestimated their own power and simply assumed that everybody in the country already knew about “Putin’s friends” – his St. Petersburg acquaintances who had grown phenomenally rich after he came to power.
Navalny, the founder of the rospil.info web site that uncovers dubious state procurement, pledged to help start “a universal propaganda machine that will work no worse than Channel One.” Within half a year people even in small towns will know about Putin’s cronies, Navalny said. When they hear the name “Putin” in the future, they’ll associate it with a three-letter word: vor, thief.
“Putin!” Navalny shouted
“Vor!”the crowed replied.
“Putin vor!” the crowd chanted on its own.
“We know the truth. We’re sure of our righteousness. And we know we’ll prevail.” Navalny said. “In the Kremlin, the swindlers and thieves think we’ll get tired of going out on the street. Will we get tired?”
Navalny vowed to stay on the street and not to leave.
“Will we leave… or not?”
“Will we be scared?”
Navalny had already used audience participation to great effect during his last appearance. It occurred to me that Putin, in recent speeches to supporters, had similarly resorted to throwing questions into the crowd. Navalny is being studied.
“Truth and faith are with us,” Navalny said. “Drag us away. Fine us. We won’t leave.
“Who’s the power?”
Navalny was finished speaking and stepped back from the microphone. But the crowd wanted him back. The protesters shouted his name until he returned to center stage.
“You’re the power!” he said. “You don’t need to wait for someone on this stage to do something!”
Navalny was followed by environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, 35. When I saw her address the public the last couple of times, she spoke softly and sweetly. Last night she was in a fighting mood. She gnashed her teeth, and there was something wild in her eyes.
“Putin vor!” she shouted into the swirling snow.
Ryzhkov, one of the MCs, called for a symbolic vote on a resolution. In addition to the demands from past rallies – including freedom for political prisoners and the resignation of Central Elections Commission chief Vladimir Churov – the protesters want sweeping political reform and early parliamentary and presidential elections. The protests will continue until all demands are met, Ryzhkov said.
He warned the protesters not to give in to any provocations on the way to the metro. It was 8:30.
From the stage I had a panoramic view of the entire square. The police had turned the Pushkinsky Cinema into a logistical base, one of the organizers told me.
To the left and right of the square stood rows of riot policemen behind municipal trucks that blocked the roadway. By 9:00, a group of several hundred protesters had still not cleared the area closest to the stage.
“Putin vor!” they chanted. “We are the power here.”
Off in the murk, at the fountain in the center of the square, I could make out Navalny, Yashin, Udaltsov and Chirikova. Apparently that’s where Ponomaryov had decided to hold his meeting with voters.
A police helicopter hovered overhead. There was the squawking of megaphones. Police buses pulled up. Riot policemen – nicknamed “cosmonauts” for their body armor – jogged into position, closing the perimeter around the square. Their black helmets glistened and bobbed under the streetlights like strings of beads.
The police instructed the protesters to disperse and proceed to the metro.
“We are the people!” they responded.
More riot policemen streamed to the scene. At 9:45 they started filling the square from all sides. The policemen snaked like a conga line through the crowd, pushing aside everyone in their way.
“One for all and all for one” the protesters shouted. More helmets arrived from Tverskaya.
Suddenly they were on the stage, pushing off journalists without ceremony.
It was 10:00. I found a stairwell in the Izvestia building that gave me a new view of the square. With colleagues, I watched as the cops cleared the square. Nearly 250 people were arrested, I learned later.
I walked up Tverskaya toward Mayakovskaya Square to gauge the atmosphere on the street. The rally on Pushkin Square was only one of several demonstrations that had been planned for the evening.
Traffic was moving normally on the street, and there was the usual number of pedestrians on Moscow’s main street. Suddenly riot policemen trooped past me. They were followed by young people who were coming from Pushkin Square. Several police buses with blaring sirens slowly moved up the street. The last remnants of the demonstration were being dispersed.
I stood on a street corner and watched as articulated city buses drove past, filled with riot policemen. Giant Ural police trucks roared by, followed by white Ford pick-up trucks hauling horse trailers.
What people forget about authoritarian governments is their brittleness. They are tough and unbendable on the outside. But when they crack, they fall to pieces.