Posts Tagged ‘Protests’

Foreigners in Their Own Land

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Monday’s rally in Moscow started with a moment of silence to commemorate the event, exactly one year ago, that sowed the seed of the protest movement’s demise.

Last year, on May 6, the day before Vladimir Putin was inaugurated president of the Russian Federation for the third time, tens of thousands of people marched peacefully down a wide Moscow avenue to Bolotnaya Square, an act that itself commemorated the first mass protest against Putin’s government on December 10, 2011. It was a heady time: People were angry and fed up with the government’s increasingly ham-fisted lies, and they were giddy at the discovery that there were tens of thousands of people in an atomized, sprawling city who were just like them, a fact that the Russian media had done its best to keep from anyone.

But then—either because of a planning glitch, or, more likely, a police provocation—the May 6 protest devolved into chaos. Police and protestors clashed violently in the square, and the violence spread throughout the city as the protestors scattered, and police pincered them out of subways and cafes. It was a violent, horrifying day, made all the more so by the unexpectedness of the conflagration.

In the following year, the protest movement sank into a kind of aimless despair as the state systematically arrested 28 people it deemed had disturbed the peace. One, Maria Baronova, a young mother, faces two years in prison for a YouTube video showing her encouraging protesters. One young man faces a lengthy jail term for exhorting people to violence, even though he has a debilitating stutter. Others face years in prison for hitting police officers, when they were the ones injured. The dragnet even caught an old woman, a pensioner. (There were, of course, no investigations into possible police brutality; all the injured special ops fighters who suffered bruises and bloody noses were rewarded with free apartments.)

Monday’s rally was nominally to show support for these people, the so-called Prisoners of Bolotnaya, whom the government has clearly made an example of: You want to protest, be prepared for the consequences. But in reality, today’s protest was a sort of test for signs of life. Did anything remain of that thrilling, optimistic protest movement of yesteryear?

The answer? A definitive, depressing maybe. As usual, more people came than the pessimistic projections predicted: anywhere from 8,000 (police estimate) to 30,000 (organizers). By all accounts, the hopelessness was dissipated a bit by anger, but the aimlessness of it all was still there. “It was a lot of people,” tweeted Moscow Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder. “And they know what they want. But they—and the opposition leaders—still dunno how to get there…” This was reflected in the tired, usual-suspects line-up of speakers, and their staid, regurgitated speechifying. It was made all the more pathetic by the weak sound system: A mishap earlier in the day had killed a volunteer setting up the equipment, and speeches had to be delivered from the side of a truck rigged up as a stage. Sometimes, it reverted into farce, as when opposition journalist Oleg Kashin went dada and sang, a capella, a song called “It’s All Going According to Plan.” Some invoked the Stalinist purges of 1937—a common, if slightly inappropriate trope of late. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin and an opposition veteran, declared, “No more resolutions! This time, we have demands!” It was a cringeworthy, unwittingly Monty Python-esque moment, and it reflected the impotence of the large, angry crowd. It was the age-old Russian dilemma, incarnate: What is to be done?

Elder told me that everyone she spoke to came to the rally “because we couldn’t not come.” She said it reminded her of the people who vote for Putin “because there’s no one else to vote for.” “It’s all so passive,” she noted. I would argue that the passiveness is the impotence of defeat, when, as the Russian saying goes, your hands fall to your sides because you just don’t see what can be done. Because if the government ignores you and doesn’t give an inch—the best the Kremlin could do today was simply to say that Putin is “aware” of everything going on; aware, and nothing but—there’s not much you can do. And if it pushes and intimidates, it makes sense to do what many Muscovites do: retreat into your vacations to Goa and your Apple products, into a cozy cocoon of friends and family, hidden from the brutality outside. Or you could do what an unverifiable number of Russians are doing: leaving. But it’s a hard decision to make. “I have no other country, I have nowhere to retreat,” boomed opposition politician Alexey Navalny, the one rousing speaker today. It was a heartbreaking expression of what I’ve seen in many of my liberal Moscow friends: They are being slowly squeezed out of their country, being made to feel like foreigners in their own land.

After the live streams from Bolotnaya ended, I spent the afternoon watching videos from the fallout of last year’s May 6 violence: a peaceful, many-days-long sit-in at the statue of Abai Kunanbaev, a Kazakh poet, on one of Moscow’s old tree-lined boulevards. It was a wonderful, happy spring, the days sunny and long, full of hope and silliness, and people played guitars and sang old Polish Solidarity songs about toppling walls with their shoulders. A year later, it’s hard to watch. There is no one at the fountain today, and it’s not just because it’s unseasonably cold in Moscow.

Foreigners in Their Own Land [TNR]

Powder Keg

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

MOSCOW — Making predictions in Russia is a notoriously ridiculous activity, but it is especially tricky when it comes to guessing the direction of the anti-government protests that have captured Moscow’s imagination for the last six months. Feb. 4, for instance, was a holiday weekend and the weather forecast called for -8 degrees Fahrenheit. After three protests and a long Christmas vacation, who would go out in such cold? And yet, some 100,000 people came out to demand fair elections. Last month, just before the march and rally scheduled for May 6, I wondered whether it was worth going at all. It was the middle of a week-long holiday, Moscow was largely empty, and Putin had won by a landslide months ago; why waste an afternoon on a couple thousand hippies? Imagine my surprise when I saw some 70,000 people strolling down the city’s Yakimanka Street, and when the peaceful march devolved into violence and a days-long street war between protestors and the police.

And so, on the eve of Tuesday’s anti-Kremlin protest, I asked a colleague for her prognosis, mostly because everyone I knew was asking for mine and I wasn’t sure what to tell them. “This time I expect to be bad,” she said. “So I’m sure it will be like Hair!”

Which it was. A largely festive crowd of tens of thousands marched down Moscow’s boulevards, braving rain and thunder and a steamy, greenhouse-like heat that felt strange in the balmy northern capital. Nationalists, liberals, anarchists, and gays cheered and chanted and moved peacefully down the route approved by authorities; they filled out forms indicating what issues they’d like to see addressed through a referendum; they listened calmly to speeches from a stage on a street named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. It seemed more summer festival than anti-government protest.

Who could have predicted that this would be the sequel to the rocks and the tear gas and the billy clubs of May 6? Who would have thought that this would be the protest after the Russian parliament, dominated by the for-Putin, by-Putin United Russia Party, rushed through a draconian anti-protest law just in time for today’s rally? And, a day after state investigators broke into the apartments of various opposition leaders, handed them summons that would keep them from today’s march, and turned their apartments upside down (a reason many protesters cited for coming out today), after six months of demonstrations with little to show for it, after all this, who could have predicted such a merry, energetic gathering?

Six months and nine major rallies after a disputed parliamentary election set this movement off, very little is clear about where, exactly, this is all going. (Nor have the two sides figured out how to reliably count the crowds they gather: Tuesday’s estimates, for example, range from 15,000 to 200,000.) On Tuesday afternoon, the rally accepted a vague manifesto that calls for more peaceful protests and getting “like minds” into government positions. There is also an especially dreamy section called “After Putin.”

But so far, Putin shows no sign of ushering in an “after” era. This week’s Gestapo-like searches — which, according to his press secretary, Putin had full knowledge of — showed just how little time the man is spending on finding an exit strategy. And if the opposition is still a vague and motley crew, Putin also doesn’t seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with them. According to people who have seen him in recent weeks, the president is rattled but mostly contemptuous. These people, in his mind, are an infinitesimal minority, and do not have to be reckoned with. (“The government is a little confused. What are they against?” United Russia functionary Yuri Kotler told me shortly after the May 6 crackdown, feigning the same wonderment about the protesters. “During the day, they sit in their cafés, and then they get bored?”) The arrests and the searches all seem to be screw-tightening measures, but they have been half-hearted.

“They’re trial runs,” said Duma opposition deputy Gennady Gudkov, who has been active in the protests — and is losing his private security business as a result. “Let’s see what happens if we do this, or if we do that, or if we go there. They’re looking to see what the reaction will be.” (Gudkov, a former colonel in Soviet counterintelligence, seems to recognize these tactics from his KGB days.)

So what next? Last month, after the peaceful May 6 rally descended into violence — for which arrests continue — I wrote that we were about to see a radicalization of the protests. Yet even after a month of events that should have moved the protests in this direction — the arrests of people for wearing protest symbols, the rushing through of the anti-protest law, the quiet scrubbing down of media outlets of some of its more independent voices, the searches — Tuesday’s events did not bear me out. Does that mean that the protest movement won’t become radicalized in the future? I can’t say for sure, but all the factors for it are still there: an opposition with no access to a system that shows no sign of letting them, or of giving an inch. Historically, such set-ups have not ended well in Russia, whether for the system, the opposition, or the population at large. Moreover, if Gudkov is right and these are merely half-hearted trial balloons, what happens if the Kremlin really puts its all into something that looks like the Iranian response to the pro-democracy “green” movement of 2009? Will the opposition radicalize then?

There is also the economic factor to consider. The Russian economy is currently growing at a relatively healthy 3.5 percent, but it’s useful to recall the whopping growth rates Russia was posting just a few years ago. In 2007, the year before the world financial crisis hit Russia, Russia’s GDP growth topped 8 percent. It had been growing at that pace, buoyed by soaring commodity prices, for almost a decade, and it was not accidental that this was the decade in which Putin made his pact with the people: You get financial and consumer comforts, and we get political power. It’s hard to maintain such a pact when the goodies stop flowing.

Which brings us to the looming issue of the Russian budget deficit. To keep the people happy and out of politics, the Russian government has promised a lot of things to a lot of people. (Putin’s campaign promises alone are estimated by the Russian Central Bank to cost at least $170 billion.) To balance its budget with such magnanimity, Russia needs high oil prices, to the point where last month, the Ministry of Economic Development announced that an $80 barrel of oil would be a “crisis.” Keeping in mind that oil is now about $98 a barrel, and that Russia used to be able to balance its budgets just fine with oil at a fraction of the price, this doesn’t look too good for Putin. Factor in the worsening European crisis — Europe is still Russia’s biggest energy customer — and the fact that the state has put off unpopular but increasingly necessary reforms, like raising utility prices, and you find yourself looking at a powder keg.

“It’s not too late to save the situation, but I fear that by the fall, it will be too late,” Gudkov told me Tuesday afternoon as we moved with the throng. “Because by the fall, people will join who are not just concerned with politics, but people who have economic concerns. And it will be a rougher, tougher protest because the people who will join the protest are people who are less educated, less well-off, less informed. And they are people who don’t have a good understanding of the law and why it’s important to obey it.” That is, should an economic and budgetary crisis hit and have a tangible and extended impact on Russians outside the Moscow middle class, the resulting populist protests could swallow up this liberal, bourgeois festival of the past six months. And, though predicting things in Russia is a fool’s game, it never hurts to be a pessimist.

Powder Keg [FP]

The Last Waltz

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

MOSCOW – On a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon, thousands of Muscovites came out to protest the March 4 presidential elections in which Vladimir Putin swept to his third presidential term with more than 63 percent of the vote. It was not the huge, euphoric, smiling crowd that thronged the city’s squares in December and February. But it was also not the angry, sullen crowd that had come out to Pushkin Square the day after the election.

Many hadn’t come at all, either because they were tired of coming out — this was the sixth large protest in three months — or because they were out of town for a long weekend. Those who did show up seemed deflated. Gone was the electricity in the air, the witty posters. Many had come not because of a new, giddy sense of empowerment that fueled the initial protests, or even out of anger over a crooked electoral system, but because they felt they simply had to.

“If I didn’t come today, it would mean that I deserve this government,” Elena, a professor at Moscow State University, told me, adding that she was coming to the inexorable conclusion that she wanted to emigrate.

“Without steps to change and enforce the law, I don’t see a point in these protests,” said another Elena, a young lawyer who was there with her boss. He did not have much faith in the political reforms proposed by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev — gubernatorial elections and an easing of party registration rules.

“I think that it’s important not to lose what we’ve gained in these months,” a white-collar worker in his thirties named Petr said. And yet, he felt the momentum dissipating. “Of course, we’re going to keep coming to these protests,” he said of himself and his friends, who both work in state-owned television. “But I think this format is starting to feel a little old. I think the protest organizers need to think of something else.”

The rally’s organizers, for their part, seem to have heard their constituency. “I think that, with this, the three-month cycle [of protests] has ended,” journalist and ring leader of the rallies’ organizing committee Serguei Parkhomenko told the press. “There will be new events, without a doubt, but only when there is a need for them. We’re not going to organize them automatically.” Members of the organizing committee have spoken of flash mobs, like last month’s Big White Circle, a smiling human chain around the 10-mile circumference of Moscow’s Garden Ring road, and events with a more aggressive bent.

And indeed, after a week of soul-searching and post-mortems of “the revolution,” the rally felt like the closing chord of a long and ebullient improvisation. Earlier this week, at a press conference held by the Voters’ League, organized by several public intellectuals to help train election monitors, writer Boris Akunin — another central figure in this winter’s movement — declared the “romantic” period of the protests over. A couple of days earlier, the police violently broke up a protest by a few hundred people who tried to stay on Pushkin Square after a permitted mass rally, and Putin congratulated the police on their “professional” behavior. “I think people have understood that they can’t charge the OMON with white balloons and ribbons,” Akunin said at the press conference, referring to the special police that enforce order at such events, and to the ubiquitous symbols of the protests. “Civil society will begin to develop along a different trajectory, along a trajectory of self-organization, and fighting for victory in local elections,” Akunin added.

If past protests were organized around the vague demand of fair elections — or new parliamentary elections — and to chant the charged but useless slogan “Russia without Putin,” Saturday’s rally was centered on thanking election monitors. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people, riding the wave of the winter’s giddiness, had signed up to monitor elections. More than 80,000 people in Moscow, and more than 130,000 nationwide volunteered for the tedious work of breathing down the necks of members of local election committees — the cogs in the great machine that would keep falsifying the vote, even when Putin’s press secretary declared that it was Putin, first and foremost, who was interested in a clean election. (When I traveled to Irkutsk in the weeks before the election, local party leaders told me the puzzling command from Moscow was victory for Putin in the first round — that is, over 51 percent — but no violations.)

Tens of thousands of these people, young and old, and, as one observer pointed out, used to comfort, stayed up till dawn on a Sunday night to make sure the votes were counted properly. Most of my Russian friends had signed up to be observers, many of them later bragged how many votes they had “saved” for one candidate or another. This winter, in other words, tedious but necessary political work has become not only a trend, but a necessity for a lot of these people.

At Saturday’s rally, the microphone also went to the young hipster candidates who had run and won in the city’s municipal elections (concurrent with the presidential vote). Vera Kichanova, a 20-year-old journalism student who won one such race, challenged the Kremlin’s campaign to paint this movement as an Orange Revolution. “Did you see bodies in the street in Tbilisi?” she asked, referring to Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. “I think that local citizens understand their own needs far better than some bureaucrats,” she went on, as the crowd began to chant spontaneously: “Good job! Good job!” When Parkhomenko spoke after her, he spoke not of the Duma vote or the evils of Putin’s corrupt regime, but of the elections for Moscow city parliament (it is still unclear when those will take place). Putin’s United Russia now has 32 out of 35 seats.

“We’re at the beginning of a long and arduous journey,” said Petr Shkumatov, of the Blue Buckets movement against abuse of VIP sirens, from the stage. “We have many kilometers and many years ahead of us, and we will trip a lot. But, one way or another, we have to complete this journey. We’ve already started, and no one, I don’t think, can take a step back.”

No one expected Putin to relinquish power or to lose the presidential election; no one even expected new Duma elections. From where I sit, the fact that the opposition was not handed an easy victory is a good thing: things that are easily won are easily squandered. Broadening participation in the kind of grassroots, civic, local organization that people like anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny or Blue Buckets have been doing for the last couple of years — rather than quick and sweeping political change — may be just what Russia needs.

The scary unknown, of course, is Putin’s reaction to all this. He worked to largely eliminate civil society during his first two terms as president. Will he also work to make the lives of a new generation of civic activists difficult in his third term? Or will he simply dig in his heels and ignore them? This may be just as bad: it’s hard to continue to give yourself over to tedious civic work when you’re working full time as, say, a lawyer, and your political extracurricular activities reap little to no reward.

The fact that Putin is unlikely to not sabotage this movement and the fact that his is the last rally — miting, in Russian — for a while, means the obituaries of the winter’s movement are premature. On December 5, a day after the disputed parliamentary elections, some 6,000 people had come out to protest — 20 times more than most opposition protests ever gathered in Putin’s era. That night, Navalny was arrested. By the time he came out, fifteen days later, protests were gathering ten times that. “I went to jail in one country and came out in another,” Navalny told supporters when he left prison.

On March 5, Moscow’s protesting middle class bemoaned the fact that, after all they had experienced this winter, Putin was still their president for the foreseeable future, that they didn’t, as many put it, “wake up in a different country.” Estimates of Saturday’s rally attendance put the crowd somewhere between 25,000 (the rally’s organizers) and 10,000 (the police). And yet, many bemoaned the fact that this was a small crowd, a sign in and of itself of how much times had changed.

The question now is not only whether Putin ignores them, but whether this crowd and their sympathizers in Moscow and, to a smaller extent, around the country, go back to sleep or or stay woken up in that different country.

The Last Waltz [FP]

Tightening the Screws

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

MOSCOW – About a month ago, after the marred parliamentary elections and the December protests shook Moscow, after everyone went away for the New Year’s holiday, and after everyone came back, 27-year-old Duma deputy Robert Shlegel decided to do some digging. This enterprising young man, a star of the pro-Kremlin youth Nashi movement, was curious: Who, exactly was financing these opposition protests?

“There was lots of information floating around; were these protests financed from abroad? Were they not financed from abroad?” Shlegel explained the other day, referring to the claims put forward by prime minister and presidential frontrunner Vladimir Putin — and then picked up by the loyalist information network — that the protests were provoked and financed by the U.S. State Department. Shlegel found an interesting, if not totally bizarre, way to investigate. He decided to look into the financing of Dozhd, or Rain TV. This independent, internet-and-cable network, staffed and watched mostly by urban hipsters — though nobody really knows how many of them ever actually tune in — has provided unalloyed and often openly sympathetic coverage of December’s events. When the protests first broke on Dec. 5, and no one knew what to make of them, Dozhd simply aired a live stream, first of the rally, then of the violent arrests. Compared to the intensely filtered, hard-spun statist agitprop — if not utter silence — on state television, Dozhd naturally came to be seen not as the “optimistic channel,” as per its logo, but as the opposition channel. Obviously, the views of its staff, many of whom showed up at the protests decked out in white ribbons (the symbol of the protests), play a part.

But that’s not what Shlegel was after. “When I looked into how the technical side of the protests was financed, I thought: either Dozhd financed the protest organizers, or the organizers could’ve helped Dozhd cover the protests,” Shlegel explained. I couldn’t quite follow his logic, but he went on. “Are these things financed from abroad, or not? This is a politically sensitive issue.” It was, he decided, a question for the prosecutor’s office. “If you’re going to be the conscience of the nation,” he said, “why are they hiding where they get their funding?”

So a month after the protests temporarily died down, Shlegel filed a request with the federal prosecutor’s office, which, in turn, asked Dozhd for its editorial charter and tax documents, among other things. But Shlegel was looking for more — and late last week, Natalia Sindeeva, Dozhd’s owner, tweeted that she had received an urgent and detailed official request for all kinds of financial documentation. Because Dozhd had been the subject of official pressure back in December — the government agency overseeing the legal compliance of the media demanded to see all that live footage from those two violent days, Dec. 5 and 6 — this latest request naturally caused a stir.

But Dozhd isn’t alone in being the recipient of unwanted attention. Two days prior, Ekho Moskvy, the opposition radio station, came under attack by its state-affiliated owner, Gazprom Media, which owns two thirds of Ekho Moskvy’s shares. Gazprom forced a shake-up of the station’s board, ousting founder and editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov along with four other board members, including two affiliated neither with Gazprom Media, nor Ekho. “This is a signal, certainly,” Venediktov said in special broadcast after the news broke. “I don’t see anything catastrophic in this, but it is unpleasant and I certainly see this as an attempt to adjust editorial policy.” And while Venediktov tried to downplay any sense of looming catastrophe, and Gazprom Media denied any whiff of carrying out Kremlin orders, it was hard not to recall what had preceded this event: About a month ago, Putin, at a meeting with prominent editors, lay into Venediktov, accusing his station of “covering me in diarrhea, from morning ’till night.”

Now, Putin is certainly a man who backs up scatological rhetoric with action, but there is something else at play here. Ekho Moskvy did not start dumping liquid feces on the premier just recently; it has been doing so for a decade. It was known as the Kremlin’s window dressing, the thing it could point to and say: “See? Freedom of the press! And on our dime, too!” Neither Ekho nor Dozhd are marginal outlets: High-ranking officials regularly grace both studios. Their chiefs — Venediktov and Sindeeva — are consummate players of Russia’s political game and have intimate knowledge of the couloirs of power. Sindeeva is friends with the oligarchs; Venediktov gets birthday greetings from Putin.

Indeed, for a time, Dozhd was President Dmitry Medvedev’s new media darling. He once visited the studio and even Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, used Dozhd as a way to wink-wink with the liberal opposition, admitting to them that Putin may not have actually discovered those ancient amphorae while he was scuba diving in the Black Sea.

But an increasingly shaky Putin is just weeks from a presidential election. Window dressing for the West is the last thing he needs right now, and he certainly doesn’t need Ekho using his government money to become a revolutionary hub — which, as Michael Schwirtz noted in the New York Times, is increasingly the case. The same can be said of Dozhd, and the other two publications that have come under state attack during this turbulent winter: Kommersant Vlast, and Bolshoi Gorod (the latter also owned by Sindeeva).

And so the screws are being tightened. The tightly monitored federal channels, which in December dared to push the envelope, have come under the gun. As I reported in my last column, NTV was swept clean of an upstart editorial team and Channel 1 has decided to freeze all shows with the merest hint of socio-political themes. Last week, Anne Nivat, a well-known French writer, was kicked out of Russia for meeting with opposition figures for her upcoming book. A bank where anti-corruption activist and protest politician Alexey Navalny has an account, received an official visit from the Bank of Russia and Navalny’s account was “checked.” And, earlier this week, Ksenia Sobchak — the daughter of Putin’s late political mentor, glamorous it-girl turned opposition journalist — finally felt the pinch, too. Her new show on MTV Russia, “State Department with Ksenia Sobchak,” was canceled after one episode. “I don’t know what happened,” she told me. “They paid for four shows — they paid the production company, they paid me. But I invited on Navalny. I think it was a political decision.”

Maybe it’s just coincidence? Maybe MTV executives decided that a music video network wasn’t the best place for a political talk show. Maybe, when a day after the Ekho Moskvy board shake up, a summons from the prosecutor’s office landed on Venediktov’s desk, it really was, as it was claimed, spurred by complaint from a strange man in far-away Tambov who took issue with a radio station’s editorial charter. Maybe it was simply the ranting of a man with too much time and too few marbles. Maybe the police and immigration officials trailing Nivat were simply over-enthusiastic cogs showing initiative. The fact that she was allowed to return over the weekend, after an override from higher-ups in the Federal Migration Service, indicates that this is probably the case. And it is probably the case with Shlegel’s inquiry, too.

Sobchak, however, is not buying it. “I hope it’s connected just to the election campaign, and that after the election they’ll relax a bit,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. I think the government has decided on a course of clamping down.”

Either way, at a certain point coincidences stop being coincidences. And overzealous minions are suddenly hyperactive because they can clearly read the writing emblazoned on the wall: We are tightening the screws. “I don’t think it’s over. On the contrary, we’re seeing a well-defined trend,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky. “I think it will get stronger and I think it is intended to put the media in a stricter framework after the election.” It is one, he posits, that will rely increasingly on legalisms and technicalities — as well as American-style claims of “immoral” programming — to keep the media in line. “I don’t the system will be as personalized. It doesn’t need a single conductor. The conception will be a loose, sticky legal framework where they can contest you on an increasing number of judicial points.” This means it won’t matter if you’re state-owned or, like, Dozhd, indpendent, especially if we see more of the kinds of things we’ve seen of late: pressure on Internet providers, on boards of directors, on owners. And the brilliant thing about it? “None of these are censorship.”

As for Shlegel, he insists that his initiative was not intended to be a PR stunt or to coincide with the Ekho Moskvy mini-scandal. “I just wanted information,” he said, flustered. He noted that 800 people had already called him that day to harangue him about his perceived attack on Dozhd. “I’m always really lucky when it comes to such things. I couldn’t have found a better moment,” he said. “Of course, I’m being sarcastic.”

Tightening the Screws [FP]

Protest and Pretend in Moscow

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Today’s opposition protest in Moscow drew more people than any of the protests that followed December’s rigged parliamentary vote. But not all of the protests since then have been anti-Kremlin. One of the many methods that the Kremlin has used in response to this unprecedented wave of civic bonhomie is to herd its own rallies. It’s a method the Kremlin has fallen back on for years: Pro-government youth groups, for example, regularly bus tens of thousands of kids into Moscow from the provinces for such events. Many of them can be spotted wandering the streets afterwards in their official T-shirts, swinging Zara bags: a free trip to the capital, with some pocket money to boot.

On December 6th, two days after the disputed elections brought thousands of angry Muscovites into the streets, these youth groups staged a massive counter-rally. They had pins and scarves and jackets and giant drums, which they pounded as the police surgically snatched nearly six hundred opposition protesters from the crowd and sent them off to jail. (They also had aggressive soccer hooligans keeping order, another hallmark of such gatherings.)
Four days later, on December 10th, a historically huge crowd of fifty thousand had come out to Bolotnaya Square to demand fair elections.

Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party—whose questionable victory was the reason for the ruckus—said it would bring out just as many people for a rally by the Kremlin walls two days later. But only two thousand people came out, if that. It was a thin crowd, which made for a strange counterpoint to one of the speakers, who went on about looking out from the stage and seeing a sea of United Russia supporters. Who were these supporters? One Russian journalist, armed with a camera, decided to find out by asking them why they came. Most turned away or ignored him. One of them, a migrant worker from Central Asia, could barely string together a sentence in Russian. (Many in the crowd that day, it turned out, were migrants—and not Russian citizens.)

There was a similar sham rally a few days ago, in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. This one, though, was in support of Putin’s candidacy for the Presidency and of the working class, which dominates the region. Many of the workers who attended the rally had been bused in from neighboring cities, industrial centers where life, even in Putin’s gilded era, is still not very pleasant. Several colleagues who went out there for the rally told me that people were very angry at Putin—the word “lynch” was used—but went to the rally in Yekaterinburg because their employers required them to, and because there was free vodka. This didn’t seem to add much to their mood, though: A video, which quickly went viral, showed a Duma deputy—formerly a worker from a nearby city—screaming “Urals! Russia! Putin!” He heard crickets in response. The protest, by the way, scraped together about ten thousand people, and police fined the organizers for having more people than the permit for the gathering allowed—an especially fine touch.

Today was the crowning moment of the Kremlin’s effort. As a hundred and twenty thousand opposition protesters marched through subzero temperatures—negative ten degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact—to Bolotnaya Square, buses across town brought in pro-Putin protesters to Poklonnaya Gora, the plaza commemorating Russia’s victory in the Second World War. The official police estimates of the size of each crowd were not believable. They put the pro-Putin number at a hundred and thirty-eight thousand, and fourteen-thousand five hundred at Bolotnaya. I was at the opposition rally, where there were clearly many, many more people than fourteen-thousand five hundred people. A smiling police officer confirmed this, adding that there were “significantly fewer people” at the pro-Putin rally. He seemed to be gloating.

I did, however, send my friend Albina Kirillova, a director with the hip opposition Rain TV channel, to Poklonnaya Gora. I asked her to capture the spirit of the pro-Putin rally, to find out if people were genuinely supporting Putin, if they had been bused in, or if they had been required to come by their employers, as has been frequently reported. Here’s what she found:

There were, as expected, people who had been paid to come; people who came out because of a work-place “initiative”; people who were less than fluent in Russian; and people who were less than sober. But there were also a lot of people who actually support Putin, either because they see no alternative to him, or because they really do like him. And they should, without a doubt, be able to gather and voice these feelings, just like the opposition.

But here’s the thing: when these protests are fake, when they aim to merely usurp and simulate popular sentiment in a controlled and controllable way, when the point is simply to mimic what the other side is doing, it’s downright destructive. People took to the streets in December and today because they’re tired of pretending that fake elections are real, that fake press is real, that fake protests are real expressions of anything. Responding with more of the same undermines the sand castle of Russia’s political system even further. It also just looks ridiculous.

Here’s another thing: these fake protests are expensive. Two days ago, the Russian franchise of Anonymous hacked the e-mail of youth minister Vasily Yakimenko. He is in charge of those Kremlin youth groups, and in charge of their fake protests. That protest with the pins and the scarves and the jackets and the drums? It cost the Russian federal budget—and the Russian taxpayer—nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Judging by the traffic the buses created near Poklonnaya Gora, Saturday’s protest probably cost even more, but the Russian taxpayer—a hundred and twenty thousand of whom were protesting exactly this kind of nonsense on Bolotnaya—will never know exactly how much. And what happens if more and more Russians start protesting as the Russian winter turns to spring, and—as is likely to happen—when Putin wins the Presidency in less than honest elections? Throwing money at things has been Putin’s preferred method for dealing with just about any problem, but this may be one of those times where this method doesn’t work.

And one more thing about today’s pro-Putin protest: Putin didn’t even show up. Instead, he commented on the show of support at Poklonnaya Gora and the fine for too many people showing up. “I’m positive that the organizers didn’t expect such a response,” Putin said. And he offered to pay the fine himself.

Protest and Pretend in Moscow [TNY]

Putin: A Used President?

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

guess you can say that it started with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s live question-and-answer session last Friday. This is a once-a-year extravaganza that lasts for hours and is Putin’s favorite—that is, utterly scripted—way to communicate with his subjects. He leans back in an Aeron chair, cocks one arm over its back, and confidently rains down figures and percentages and questionable numbers like heavenly manna. He solves housing shortages for Second World War veterans with a swift, manly snarl. He jokes, he zings—he is, in short, in his element. This year, however, Putin’s telethon came amid growing protests by the country’s middle class, which has had enough, over the crude, ham-fisted falsifications of the December 4th parliamentary vote. This year, he was nervous, and, despite his vocal unwillingness to discuss this wrinkle in the system, he had to keep coming back to the topic. When all else failed, he tried to ease off the theme by making a joke about the white ribbons protesters have been pinning to their chests. “To be perfectly honest,” he said,

When I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest—it’s not quite appropriate— but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.

Within minutes, the Russian-language Internet was overflowing with condom jokes, including a picture of a condom folded up like an activist ribbon, and a Christmas card from Putin, an unfurled condom hanging from his lapel. A joke started to make the rounds: a guy and a girl are getting hot and heavy, and, at the critical moment, she says, “Do you have a white ribbon?”

Russians have a long tradition of biting, bitter humor, a necessary steam valve when you live in a reality that could easily be mistaken for a joke. These days, with all the steam the system has built up over a decade of High Putinism suddenly billowing forth, humor has been front and center. KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter parody of Dmitry Medvedev’s Twitter feed, has been especially active of late. “Putin,” one of the recent condom-themed tweets went, “is a used president.” (He had been President before, and intends to be so again.)

Saturday, up to a hundred and twenty thousand people came out to demand electoral reform—a record for the infamously indifferent Putin generation. Partly because the last massive protest, two weeks ago, was so peaceful, and because Muscovites are getting the hang of this, Saturday’s protest was, more than anything, a festival of such classically wry Russian witticisms. Below, some of my favorites.

(Photographs: Max Avdeev)

(Photographs, above and top: Julia Ioffe)

Putin: A Used President? [TNY]

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

MOSCOW – Going into today’s protest against the fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, it was unclear how many people would come. Would there be more people than the some 50,000 that gathered on Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10, in the election’s heady aftermath? Would there be less, given the holiday season, the dropping temperatures, and the distance — three weeks — from the insult of the election fraud that cemented the ruling United Russia party, however weakly, back into power? Would there be more, given the lack of a crackdown last time, when, it should be noted, no one knew how many would show up either? And even if there were more, what would it mean?

Crowd counting, especially from the ground level, is an inexact science at best, but it was clear to everyone — from police to journalists to the event organizers — that thousands more people came out today to Sakharov Avenue than did two weeks ago to Bolotnaya Square, which has become the new by-word for the still hard-to-pin spirit of change creeping through the Russian political system. The crowd — its estimates ranging from 30,000 to 120,000 — was also different from the protest of Dec. 10. If Bolotnaya was packed with the young and the white-collared (“office plankton,” as they’re known in Russia) today’s demonstrations brought out a more motley assembly.

Anarchists clustered by the gay activists, themselves within spitting distance from the radical young communists. Their elderly counterparts, with fur hats and voluminous, unkempt eyebrows (“You tell America,” one of them, an 83-year-old World War II veteran, said, looking at my press badge, “that Russia will never be its colony!”) were also nearby, flanked by the wry and rowdy hipsters from Leprozorium (“Leper Colony”), a closed and harshly meritocratic web forum famous for cultivating some of the Russian internet’s stickiest memes. Jumping up and down, they chanted “Fuck, you’re tall! Fuck, you’re tall!” at the 6-foot-8-inch Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest person in Russia and a newly minted opposition presidential candidate, whose head loomed over a scrum of people eager to ask him about orphanages, corruption, and Soviet history.

All around these islands was a sea of grandmothers, of the middle-aged, of the well-heeled, the more modestly compensated, and, of course, the office plankton. It was bitterly cold on Saturday afternoon in Moscow and, huddling under a steely sky flecked with white balloons, people drank whiskey from flasks and tea from thermoses; they jumped in place to keep warm. As on Bolotnaya, the speeches coming from the stage — though clearly audible because of speakers placed along the avenue — were almost of secondary importance. It wasn’t about the speakers, some of whom, like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, were booed; people talked politics among themselves, periodically stopping to join in the chanting of a slogan echoing from the stage.

And yet, despite the obviously bigger numbers than the protest earlier this month, many of the people I spoke to today didn’t sound like they were at the biggest display of civic upswell in 20 years. Gone was the euphoria, the ebullience, the anger. The people who came out to Sakharov Avenue were more muted than the crowds of Bolotnaya a fortnight before, and despite the friendliness in abundance — a rare sight when so many Muscovites cluster so closely together — there was a calmness and a quiet that Bolotnaya, its air crackling, did not have. Even the polite and peaceful police presence, such a novelty on Dec. 10, didn’t even merit a shrug.

At Bolotnaya, when everyone was surprised by the fact that so many thousands of other traditionally atomized Muscovites coalesced to voice their frustrations, there was something of a sense of elation, a delight in discovering that people who share the same frustration existed, and existed in such large and friendly numbers. In the two weeks since, however, a lot has happened. That surprise, that “now-now-now” euphoria, has morphed into a firmer sense of civic entitlement. The opposition has banded into various squabbling organizational committees; it has learned how to handle negotiations with the mayor’s office; how to raise money for sound equipment; how to give people a say in the lineup of who will address them at the protest; and how to better harness social networks into disseminating information. Contrary to the near universal expectation that this amorphous and motley crew would fracture and do itself in by squabbling, the diverse movement has surprised everyone, including itself, with its growing sophistication.

Part of the reason is that it has also tasted success. In the two weeks since Bolotnaya, the government response has gone from messy and panicked to largely symbolic gestures — tossing the infamously crass Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov under the bus and handing some parliamentary committee chairmanships to the “loyal opposition” — to the beginnings of something that’s starting to look like actual concessions and, more shockingly, real change.

In his four-hour live question and answer session on Dec. 16, Vladimir Putin floated the idea that Russia may see a return of elected governors, though a strange device called a “presidential filter.” (Gubernatorial elections, done away with in 2004 under the pretext of fighting terrorism, have been the signature of Putin’s centralized — and now wobbling — political system.) This week, Dmitry Medvedev, still formally president, delivered his final state of the nation address to the country’s political elite. He laid out plans for political reform, including the direct election of governors, something that would begin to address the deafness, inflexibility, and ineffectiveness of Putin’s power vertical. “People are tired of having their interests ignored,” Medvedev said. “I hear those who talk about the need for change and understand them.”

Today, while however many tens of thousands stood around on Sakharov Avenue — a protest echoed in dozens of cities around the country — Sergei Naryshkin, until recently the president’s chief of staff and now the new Duma speaker, went on television to suggest that maybe they didn’t need a “presidential filter” after all, that maybe political parties’ own selection process was enough.

Even the official rhetoric has begun to shift away from insinuations of American provocation and Putin’s swat at demonstrators that their white protest ribbons reminded him of limp condoms. Today’s statements from top United Russia officials steered clear of insulting the crowd, choosing instead to focus on their leaders, and to hint that, maybe, they had come out not to get State Department money, but because they had legitimate grievances. “It’s obvious that there is a huge chasm between those Russian citizens who came out to protest, and those who address them from the stage,” said United Russia deputy Irina Yarova, in a press release sent around by the party on Saturday afternoon. The participants, according to Yarova, are “simple” and “sincere” — a far cry from Putin’s assertion that they had come out in exchange for money. Alexander Khinshtein, another United Russia deputy, spun it a different way. “I think that the existence of the opposition is testament to the health of the country,” he said, pointing to the “ripeness of our political system.” Compare that to the pre-Bolotnaya talk of provocateurs, traitors, and other characters unworthy of direct dialogue with the state.

That is not to say that many things, many of the most important things, will be left unchanged: The deeply fraudulent parliamentary elections of Dec. 4 won’t be nullified and held anew; Vladimir Churov — the odd and flamboyantly partisan “magician” in charge of the Central Election Commission — shows no signs of resigning (he’s a childhood friend of Putin); and, come March 4, unless things completely come apart, Putin will win the presidential election. He will still be the deeply conservative, change-averse, hands-on Putin; the system will still be deeply corrupt, unresponsive, and weak.

That said, there’s three months to go — and there’s still the chance, however much it shrinks with each peaceful protest protected by extremely civil police officers, that things could explode into violence and screw-tightening.

But, if the people who have been coming out despite the cold this month — 100,000, for Putin’s Russia, is still an unimaginable amount (most protests in the last decade drew no more than a brave few hundred) — don’t fall asleep on March 5 when their slim hopes are dashed by Putin’s victory, if these small victories make them hungrier rather than nauseous, if the surprise at discovering that one’s political opinions are not at all singular or marginal does not sour when the number at these protests inevitably plateaus, then Putin’s system, come 2012, will already be a very different one. It will find itself dealing with a new constituency whose wizened, suspicious regard for his maneuvers will make them harder and harder to trick, which will therefore make it more and more necessary for the system to actually deal with them, and take their concerns seriously.

And perhaps, if this new protest constituency can be trained by its experience to see small concessions as big successes, perhaps the political system and political life can finally become somewhat “normal” — the utterly subjective gold standard for Russians. “We’re setting a precedent,” said Alexei, a 25-year old computer programmer, shivering in the cold. “The reason the word ‘politics’ always had this negative connotation in Russia is because there was an understanding that we’re not going to get involved in it, especially not as decent people. We want to give the word a different connotation, so that a decent person doesn’t have to get red in the face when he says the word ‘politics.'”

Won’t Get Fooled Again [FP]

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

On Sunday, Nov. 27, when Vladimir Putin accepted United Russia’s nomination to be its presidential candidate, he mentioned something in his acceptance speech that seemed to come out of left field. “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money — so-called ‘grantees’ — whom they instruct, find them ‘suitable work’ in order to influence the result of the election campaign in our country,” he said, adding that “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” It was old-school, West-bashing, Cold War-invoking Putin at his best.

It was also, it turns out, very carefully aimed. Over the weekend, as United Russia waved its flags and cheered its leader, two journalists from state-controlled television station NTV showed up at the offices of Golos (“Voice” or “Vote”), the only Russian NGO with the means and credibility to monitor elections. The uninvited film crew came to sit in on a training session for volunteers and, according to Golos’s accounts, made quite the entrance. They watched a Golos training video and interviewed the organization’s director, Lilia Shibanova (as she told me, “aggressively”), asking her about her organization’s connection to the CIA.

The next day, the same journalists arrived to find Grigory Melkonyants, Golos’s deputy director. They stuck a camera in his face and started yelling at him about the etiology of his salary (the United States, naturally) and alleging that Golos was attempting to disrupt Sunday, Dec. 4’s parliamentary elections. The resultant video, recorded on Melkonyants’s phone, quickly went viral when it made it onto the web a couple of days later. It shows the two screaming at each other: NTV insinuating sordid connections to shadowy Western organizations, Melkonyants repeating over and over and over again: “You are Surkov’s propaganda.” (He was referring to Vladislav Surkov, the architect of the power vertical, creator of United Russia and Nashi, and a man who makes Karl Rove look like a professional dilettante.) The repetition of the phrase — 84 times in all — was designed to make the footage unusable for the kind of hatchet pieces NTV airs on figures who suddenly fall from official grace.

The half-hour film segment, called “Voice Out of Nowhere,” finally made it onto the air Friday, but not before three Duma deputies wrote a letter to Russia’s prosecutor general, alleging that Golos’s newspaper breaks the law by “giving direct assessments of the progress of the election campaign in our country.” Furthermore, the organization, the deputies allege, is merely a shell organization for the U.S. Congress and State Department to influence internal Russian politics. The deputies’ demand? Shut Golos down.

A statement by Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission and loyal Putin defender, followed, claiming that Golos was waging a campaign against United Russia. There was the sudden removal of a banner on Wednesday from the liberal Internet newspaper Gazeta.ru advertising its joint project with Golos: an interactive map tracking all election law violations submitted by users. (Asked whether Gazeta.ru had been pressured to remove this banner, Editor in Chief Mikhail Kotov only said, “I’d rather leave this without comment.”) Then, Friday, in a hastily scheduled court hearing and verdict, Golos was found guilty, during just one morning session, of abusing media privileges — and ordered to pay a roughly $1,000 fine.

Golos, which, with its vast network of volunteers carpeting Russia, has been an invaluable resource to journalists covering Russian elections, has never denied that it receives foreign funding. “We survive on foreign grants because the government will never finance the kind of work we do,” Shibanova told me this week. “But the money does not influence our results.” She readily listed the mosaic of grants, large and small, that make up Golos’s roughly $2.5 million election-year budget: the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Democratic Institute, British and Scandinavian embassies, the European Commission. Nor does she deny that Golos observers often pose as journalists in order to get into the polling stations, something she says is impossible to avoid after the passage of a law, in 2005, banning all election monitors except those sent by the parties themselves, or journalists. “Of course we pose as journalists!” Shibanova said. “What else can we do if you ban any public observers and allow in only representatives from the parties themselves?”

This is not the first time election observers have faced trouble in Russia — European monitors generally have a difficult time getting accredited to cover Russian elections, and this year was no exception — but the scale of the attack on Golos is unprecedented. It also fits into the context of an increasingly brazen campaign in which government officials and offices — like Churov’s Central Election Commission — openly and unapologetically use their positions to campaign for United Russia. Or in which United Russia officials openly promise voters money directly proportional to election results. It is rather odd, for instance, that Churov steps in so openly for just one party — United Russia — which clearly has the lion’s share of the advantage, as well as the financial, administrative, and media resources of the state, essentially, at its behest. “Before, they at least tried to hide this,” says political analyst Maria Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Now, not only are they not hiding the fact that they’re waging electoral campaigns from their desks and offices inside the government — they’re showing it off.”

But heading into Sunday’s vote, the Kremlin isn’t just showing off its political will, administrative might, or even hubris and blunt honesty about what the process really is; it’s also flaunting, albeit inadvertently, a fear of what that vote on Sunday might reveal. How else can one explain an otherwise sophisticated, cleverly nuanced system — Surkov, unlike Rove, fetishizes the post-modern — suddenly falling back on the crassest of methods? How else can one explain the explicit directive given to the foreign-news translation service within the state RIA news agency not to publish pieces critical of Putin and United Russia ahead of the elections? What happened to the state media system’s brilliant shortcut of self-censorship? And what to make of the sudden prominence given to Western spooks, in Putin’s speech, in the official letters to the prosecutor’s office, and in nearly identical language? (“We have special services, and we have all the data about NGOs’ being sponsored by foreign states,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary told me. “We have all the information, let’s say, about some recommendations coming from the foreign states. Already we know NGOs that will start shouting on the 5th of December” — the day after the elections — “that these elections are not legitimate without paying any respect to the results.”)

On Friday, still-president Dmitry Medvedev issued an appeal to his subjects. “How long will it take you to go and vote?” he asked. “Half an hour? An hour? But this hour will determine what kind of parliament the country will live with for five whole years.” Will it be a parliament “torn apart by constant contradiction, unable to solve anything, as we’ve already seen in our history?” Medvedev asked, invoking the old bogeyman of the 1990s. Or will it be a parliament where “the majority will be responsible politicians [read: United Russia deputies] who can actually improve the quality of life?”

Whatever kind of parliament the Kremlin gets on Sunday, Surkov will find a way to work with it or around it. But, given the public rumblings of the last two months as well as the Kremlin’s crass response, it seems that the Kremlin is increasingly uncertain about how its citizens will spend that hour.

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style [FP]