Putin’s strength is now his weakness

Michael Petrou in Moscow joined the burgeoning opposition standing up to the Russian leader
Putin the terrible
Pool New/Reuters

There were moments when cracks appeared in Russia’s suffocating political reality, and fragments of its future shone through.

Two days before the election that saw Vladimir Putin returned to power for a third term as president, to go along with four years in a prime ministerial holding pattern, self-described revolutionaries gathered in a downtown basement bar called Zavtra, meaning “tomorrow,” and plotted how to end Putin’s rule.

They sat in a smoke-filled nook at the back of the room, far from the serving bar and farther from a long-haired man who sat on a stool with a guitar and sang for other patrons. They drank red wine from teacups on tables piled with white ribbons and protest buttons. Several hunched over sleek-looking smartphones and Wi-Fi tablets. Many had not met before in person. They had connected on Facebook and other social networking sites. Many were politicized by Putin’s announcement in September that he and then president Dmitry Medvedev had agreed to switch positions this year, with Putin again standing for president and Medvedev expected to resume his role as prime minister.

“I’m just a citizen,” said Svetlana Chediya, 38, a scriptwriter with short, soft-spiked hair. “We’re just people who don’t want this to continue. I wasn’t politically active before. Now I think the time has come.”

Chediya first marched against Putin on Dec. 5, following parliamentary elections that returned Putin’s United Russia party to power amid numerous instances of ballot stuffing and other fraud. These were posted on the Internet.  Chediya saw them and decided to protest. Over two days, anti-Putin marchers clashed with his supporters, and at least 250 people were arrested.

“I have a son. He’s seven. I don’t want him to live in the same country we have lived in for the last 12 years, or even the last 70 years—there’s no real difference. I want him to live in a free country, where people can choose their own conditions,” she said.

The activists in the Tomorrow bar were a diverse lot politically, though few backed any of the five candidates contesting the presidency—all of whom were approved by the Kremlin-controlled Central Election Commission of Russia. They expected Putin to win handily but saw the elections as illegitimate. Change, they believed, would come later, through street protests and civil action.

“Putin won’t be president in one year,” said Viacheslav Egorov, who organized one of the Facebook groups that brought members to the meeting. He predicted escalating demonstrations that would eventually force Putin to step down. “It will be pressure without violence or weapons. We have only our bodies and our brains.”

Such dissent is new. For years, Russians offered little opposition. Putin promised them stability and comparative wealth in return for their acquiescence, and most accepted the deal. The 1990s were chaotic and even hungry times for many Russians—something that Putin and his supporters are keen to remind voters. Ten years ago, says Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, 22 per cent of Russians couldn’t afford basic foodstuffs; now less than 10 per cent of Russians struggle to eat.

“I remember when this was empty. There was nothing to sell,” a 34-year-old Russian woman said, strolling though an opulent shopping mall that borders Red Square about 50 metres from Lenin’s tomb. It is now crowded with shoppers ogling rows of luxury cars.

Putin’s unspoken pact with the growing middle class was similar: you can have your freedoms. You can travel and make money. If you don’t like it here, you can leave. Just don’t meddle in politics.

As for Russia’s elite, its business leaders and regional strongmen, they were permitted skyrocketing wealth, as long as they remained loyal and delivered the support of their workers and constituents when votes and chanting crowds were required.

Putin’s tactics have protected him for 12 years. But something is changing that is already eroding his power and will eventually end it. A new, politically energized generation is emerging that no longer feels bound by the pacts that sheltered Putin for so long. They are educated, able to reach out to each other on the Internet, and no longer cowed by memories of the 1990s or the earlier Soviet era. Barred from Russia’s traditional avenues of power, Russian dissidents are nevertheless organizing themselves and are committed to changing their country.

They took to the streets Monday, the day after Putin’s electoral victory. And for those who hoped for a singular, decisive confrontation, the turnout and the rally’s apparent impact must have been a disappointment. Some 20,000 people filled Pushkin Square, surrounded by thousands of security forces. They listened to speeches, and chanted, “Russia without Putin!” and “We have the power!” But within a few hours it was all over. Most of the demonstrators filed out of the square. Some 200 or 300, including prominent opposition leaders, stayed. Police swept in and arrested them. There would be no Tahrir Square moment in Moscow, at least not this week.

But the absence of such a showdown, of a visually stunning victory, masks the importance of what’s happening in Moscow. This is the birth of a movement. It’s slower to grow than in Egypt, and it lacks the unity and focus of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. But it may prove just as significant. Russians are rising from a long slumber of timidity and political indifference.

“Now we have civil society,” said Alexander Tsvirov, a historian and a “left-wing liberal” who had joined those planning post-election protests in the basement bar.

“We believe in non-violent transformation from dictatorship to democracy. We believe it’s possible,” Ilya Yashin, one of the young leaders in Russia’s growing liberal opposition, told Maclean’s. He’s been arrested many times, is under constant surveillance, and has even been subjected to Soviet reputation-tarnishing tactics involving a state-hired prostitute.

“Of course we want to be in parliament. Of course we want to have freedom of media and freedom of parliament. But we have no alternative today—just go to the streets. We just go to the streets and show the government and show the Kremlin that there are a lot of people in Russia who want changes and you should not ignore us.”

“People want to fight for their rights. People wake up in Russia. And people are ready to fight for their civil rights. And it will be very difficult for Putin to tell people to go to their houses. We will have our Russian spring.”

VOTING DAY IN Moscow dawned overcast and cold with a thin layer of powdery new snow fallen overnight. There wasn’t much excitement on the streets, but then no one really doubted the results. Even without straightforward fraud, the deck was already stacked for Putin.

“It is wrong to focus just on this election and whether or not there will be vote rigging,” said Lipman, of the Carnegie Endowment. “The whole environment is not conducive to democratic elections, and the campaign has been fairly unfair.”

Lipman pointed to legislation stifling the growth of new political parties, and rules that restrict candidates hoping to run for president. Aspiring independent candidates who are not backed by a registered party must submit two million signatures to the electoral commission, which is run by Putin loyalist Vladimir Churov. This year the commission rejected several candidates, including liberal Grigory Yavlinsky of the Yabloko party, who supposedly submitted too many fraudulent signatures. The commission also rejected the candidacy of Eduard Limonov, from the opposition movement The Other Russia.

And Putin enjoys the overwhelming support of most national media. Those who don’t fall into line are punished. Echo of Moscow, one of the few radio stations in Russia critical of the Kremlin, recently saw two independent members of its board of directors dismissed by the station’s majority shareholder, Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the state-owned gas company. Sergey Buntman, deputy editor, says the move was the first step in an effort to shut the station down or force a change in its editorial policy.

Sometimes the pressure is more direct. Oleg Kashin, a journalist with Kommersant newspaper who has written critically about Putin and youth groups that support him, was attacked in 2010 by young men wielding metal bars. They almost killed him, breaking his jaw and shins. A crushed finger was later amputated. Police said they were investigating the case as an attempted murder, but they haven’t arrested anyone. When he met with Maclean’s, Kashin, chain-smoking and cheerful, said his attack at least had caused independent-minded journalists to look out for each other. “It felt like after that we had a community,” he said.

Against such a backdrop, if voting day served any purpose at all, it was merely to underline how illegitimate and undemocratic the entire process was. Ballot stuffing occurred, again. If official results are to be believed, in at least one precinct in Chechnya more people voted for Putin than were registered to vote. But this was only one tactic among many.

By mid-afternoon, some 200 buses full of Putin supporters were parked along a side street close to Red Square in Moscow. Ivan Karpov, a 26-year-old IT worker, got off one of them. He had come from St. Petersburg, over 600 km away. “We want to show there are people in Russia who support Putin’s policies,” he said

Karpov said that a “network of Putin supporters” had organized and paid for the buses, and for his accommodation in Moscow. He said a pro-Putin group had also given him business training, and had provided a friend with a loan to help him start a business.

It’s conceivable—at least in theory—that whomever arranged transport and accommodation for thousands of Putin loyalists really was independent of the Kremlin. But the mobilization of public resources for partisan ends became increasingly blatant and obscene as the day wore on.

Several victory rallies took place that night, the largest in the symbolic and central Manezhnaya Square, near the Kremlin. There were stages, and bands, and thumping music. Maclean’s tried to get into one peripheral concert at Lubyanka Square, opposite KGB headquarters. We were told only members of “certain organizations” were welcome. Inside, revellers waved flags belonging to “Young Russia,” a pro-Kremlin youth group.

“We’re all for Putin!” a man yelled into a microphone from the stage, trying to whip up the crowd. The song Who Let the Dogs Out? blasted from speakers behind him.

At Manezhnaya Square, crowds consisting almost entirely of young men milled and marched about with Russian flags held aloft on wooden staves. They carried banners that read “We believe in Russia” and gave different answers when asked who organized them. One man rebuffed questions by saying he didn’t like Americans. “We’re fit guys, fit for street fighting,” another said.

In a corner away from the main crowd, men handed out hundreds of Russian flags. One said Russia’s Department of Youth Policy provided them.

Putin himself took the stage that night, tears in his eyes. “We have won in an open and honest battle,” he said. “We have shown that our people are indeed capable of easily making a distinction between a desire for renewal and political provocations whose sole objective is to destroy Russian statehood and usurp power. The Russian people have today shown that such scripts and scenarios will not succeed in our land . . . I promised you that we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia.”

And so Putin marked his victory the same way he campaigned: by portraying those who oppose him not as political rivals, but as traitors.

NOT ALL OF Putin’s supporters feel the same way. But many who don’t think Putin’s opponents are disloyal also don’t see a viable alternative to him. “Just imagine a new president,” Putin voter Valeriy Starchenkov said, clearly disturbed by the thought. “Everything would change for the worse.”

Ask, and many Putin backers will speak of the stability and relative prosperity he has brought to Russia, and of their country’s stronger and reassertive role in the world.

“We are such a big country. Only Putin can control our country and can speak to the world. If tomorrow our country is not strong, we will lose it,” said Kirill Drobkov, a businessman walking through Red Square with his wife and young son.

“I have friends who like to travel and spend money outside Russia. They don’t like Putin. I ask them where they have earned all this money they can spend. They have to tell me in Russia. And then there’s nothing more they can say about Putin.”

Others are cynical, if pragmatic. “He has taken what he wants to steal already, and won’t steal anything more. That’s why I like him,” one man said.

Often the conversation circles back to the 1990s. “He’s good for our economy. People forget what hyper-inflation was like in Boris Yeltsin’s time,” said Ruslan Kust, a sommelier. Still, Kust said a functioning democracy requires a strong opposition, to challenge the government and to probe for flaws in its policy. Putin, said Kust, should listen to his opponents. Asked if he expected Putin to do so, Kust paused. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

An answer of sorts came the night after the election, in the response of security forces to opposition protesters. They detained more than 200 in Moscow and another 300 at a similar rally in St. Petersburg.

“He decided to show who’s boss of this place,” said Maxim Trudolyubov, editorial page editor of the Vedomosti newspaper, speaking of Putin. “It’s personal. He’s a very vengeful person who holds grudges. What happened was a petty little vendetta against the Moscow protesters. Putin doesn’t want to negotiate with the opposition. He only wants to show who’s boss. He has the mentality of a street thug.”

Such inflexibility may ultimately weaken Putin, says Nikolay Petrov, scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Radical reforms to Russia’s economy are needed, says Petrov, but Putin is not in a good position to make them, because of his defiant rhetoric and populist appeal. Putin has built what Petrov describes as a “status quo majority” that expects continued but unsustainable largesse. “There is a growing gap between populist politics and the capabilities of the state,” says Petrov.

Putin has similarly narrowed his options when it comes to Russia’s foreign policy, says Petrov. Prior to this election, with then president Dmitry Medvedev at least nominally in the role of president, Putin and Medvedev could tailor their messaging on Russian relations with the outside world: “Medvedev was saying good things for the West and for Russian liberals. Putin was saying good things for internal consumption. The problem now is that there is no more Medvedev in his former capacity, in the capacity of the good cop. There is only the bad cop [Putin]. But the bad cop is not in a position to change his rhetoric, to make it more balanced, because it will be a sign of weakness. Putin is hostage to his image of a bad cop, which will make Putin, as Russia’s leader, much more restricted in his actions and perhaps his actions vis-à-vis his partners abroad.”

Putin has already steered Russia against Western efforts on several fronts. Moscow most recently vetoed two United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria, a Russian ally and major arms buyer. The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has been trying to crush a popular uprising with brutal and often indiscriminate force for almost a year. Russia has also worked to soften United Nations measures against Iran and its nuclear program, which most Western governments believe is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

VLADIMIR PUTIN’S third term begins with the Russia president-elect showing little indication he’s inclined to soften Russian foreign policy toward the West, or to tolerate dissent at home.

Some of his opponents believe he’ll be forced to liberalize, whether he wants to or not. They point to legislation in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which will loosen restrictions on forming new political parties as evidence that even the Putin-controlled Kremlin must respond to the street with moves toward reform.

The alternative is that he’ll dig in and refuse to bend, likely resulting in escalating protests. While some dissidents might relish the idea of a conclusive uprising, most predict change will be gradual.

“We need a lot of spring. It’s not a one-day revolution. That’s a stupid idea,” said Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader. “We’re against bloody revolution. Russia has a terrible experience with bloody revolution.”

Ilya Yashin believes a violent confrontation in Russia can best be avoided if Putin leaves the country. And he says the Russian people should offer him amnesty in return for his departure. “Because that’s the only way to save Russia from blood. That’s the price,” says Yashin, suggesting that Putin and his allies could be prosecuted for corruption. “We should tell Putin, ‘We do not want for you the fate of Gadhafi. We don’t want your dead body. We want you to live a long life. But leave our country alone. Please. Stop it. We will give you amnesty. But leave our country.’ ”

Less important than the opposition’s tactics, however, is the fact that they are being discussed.

Sergey Buntman of the Echo of Moscow is old enough to remember the Soviet Union. His hair and droopy moustache are flecked with grey, and when he met with Maclean’s, the lapels of his thick-corded blue sports coat were spotted with ash from the fragrant pipe he smokes.  He described the apathy he used to witness in Russians, and especially young Russians, as “a kind of tragedy.”

“You know the Moscow glance? It’s gloomy. It’s suspicious,” he said. But then the protests against Putin began. “Suddenly all those young, and less young, people in the streets—there was a new mood in Moscow. At all those political demonstrations and meetings it was different. There was sympathy. They were joyful.”

And maybe this is the biggest change that Putin’s renewed tenure will bring to Russia. There is hope—not because of what he will do as president, but because of what he has awakened in those who oppose him.

“Putin is the one that’s forcing the protests,” Alexei Navalny said on election night. “The scale of falsification is bringing people to the streets.”

The next night, before his arrest, Navalny joined thousands of other Russians who gathered in Pushkin Square to demonstrate their opposition to Putin.

“This protest will show others that we are not alone,” Ivan Mouraviev, a 24-year-old auditor said. Mouraviev first marched in December, following the rigged Duma elections. “Suddenly I understood that I am a citizen. I’m a man with a voice and his own mind. It’s like a switch in your brain when you realize that all your fear is an illusion.”

Most in the crowd that night were young. It was freezing cold, and crowded, and police and soldiers were everywhere. But Natasha Georgievna, 70, still forced her way to the square. “I was in low spirits, but when I came here I felt better,” she said.

Her friend, Elena Ivanova, 55, leaned in to be heard over the throng surrounding her and the helicopter buzzing overhead.

“Here we feel free.”