After an interminably long delay, the grey Moscow heavens were at long last generous with snow, dispensing heaps and heaps of the white stuff, turning cars into snow mountains and making sidewalks impassable. This is a nice time of year: bare trees are covered with white foliage, skating rinks flash with skaters, girls sport their favorite minks. Snow mitigates the bitter frost, and kids are busy throwing snowballs. The big and rather well-tempered demo on Saturday Dec 24 was probably the last splash of public activity before snow-bound Russia enters its long Christmas recess for some three weeks. Usually Russians prepare for New Year’s starting with Western Christmas Day and then stay away from work skiing, boozing, or roaming overseas until their peculiar Old New Year feast in mid-January.
The big demo confirmed a new Fronde in the heart of Russia. The original Fronde was a series of anti-absolutist uprisings caused by the personal ambitions of discontented nobles; and by the grievances of the people against the financial burdens in France that lasted from 1648 to 1653. The Frondeurs came from various social strata and at times pursued divergent goals, says the encyclopaedia, and this definition fits Russia’s new Snow Fronde to a tee. The Russian Frondeurs are a varied lot:
- bright young men and women looking for more participation in the running of their country;
- sincere professionals worried by the lack of development;
- anarchists and the gay community;
- political figures from the 90’s, once defeated and trashed by Putin and now looking for revanche;
- like the Fronde of old, this one includes princes and nobles: ex-president Mikhail Gorbachev (he did not come to the rally for health reasons), ex-Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov and ex-Prime Minister Kasyanov;
- professional rebels like Edward Limonov and Sergey Udaltsov;
- best-selling writers Boris Akunin and Dmitry Bykov;
- oligarchs Prokhorov and Berezovsky of London;
- Vanity Fair, high fashion and gossip personalities Xenia Sobchak and Bozhena Rynska;
- nationalists and racialists Vladimir Tor and Constantine Krylov;
- and last but not least, powerful new protest leader Alexei Navalny, whose rabble-rousing unnerved more timid protesters.
The most senior attendee and speaker at the rally was ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, recently fired by Medvedev. Mr Kudrin is a favourite of the IMF and of the US Administration, the man who kept Russia’s savings in US treasury notes. He is competing for the title of “most hated” with Anatoly Chubais, the man behind Yeltsin’s privatisation and fake auctions. He is a serious, powerful man, and his presence was an important sign to young and not-so-young protesters alike. He can be compared to Gadhafi’s Minister of Justice Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the most senior Libyan minister to switch sides and legitimize the rebellion.
Now the authorities have a longish time-out for a month or two, until the revving up of the March Presidential elections. Nor have they wasted their time: after the unexpectedly large turnout at the previous demo on December 10, protesting the results of the Parliamentary elections, a flurry of government activity was unleashed. This counterattack by Putin consisted of promising more democracy, more anti-corruption measures and more political manoeuvring while blaming the US for the current unrest.
The administration took a few practical steps:
- the new Parliament was sworn in, effectively closing off discussion of electoral fraud;
- almost all alternative candidates for the Presidency were blocked and de-listed, leaving the field to tired old politicians with one exception:
- Playboy oligarch Prokhorov was given a green light to run for the presidency in hopes of placating and involving the pro-Western electorate, eliminating the possibility of electoral boycott;
- the Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, was brought home and appointed Deputy Prime Minister for Defence. Rogozin is a more nationalist voice, and his appointment is supposed to placate Russian anti-Western nationalists.
- Vladislav Surkov, the éminence grise of the Kremlin, became the head of the presidential administration, a position of power. Surkov is the smartest man at the top, and his stratagems will be needed and heeded.
- A dirty trick was played on Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Snow Frondeurs – his phone was hacked and his calls were recorded and made available on the web. They were extremely outspoken and included curses heaped on his ostensible partners.
- The post-election campaign peaked with Putin’s live marathon TV question-and-answer show. This time Putin broke his own record by answering questions by Russians for over four and half hours. He did not hesitate to answer even the most awkward questions from callers from all over the vast country – from the Pacific to the Baltic coast.
- A few days later incumbent president Medvedev made a speech to the nation promising more democracy, a lowering of the electoral threshold and an easing of restrictions on party registration.
- In a widely reported meeting with the energy sector, Putin promised to uproot corrupt officials and put a stop to their practice of passing profitable contracts to their sons or spouses.
Putin promised to make state governors electable by popular vote instead of appointing them, as is the rule now. He reminded people that when state governors had been elected in the past, these positions were snapped up by the oligarchs or their protégés, who were often connected to organised crime. Perhaps true, but at the moment all (but one) of the appointed governors belong to the United Russia party, and this does not seem right or fair. So the promised freedom to elect governors (with some caveats) went over well with the people. This was reiterated by President Medvedev in his speech to the nation a few days later.
Though the claim of fraudulent elections has been somewhat exaggerated, Putin promised to install a web camera at each polling station to eliminate the possibility of fraud. Putin was rather dismissive of the rally, saying that the white ribbons of the participants looked like condoms – and some began to style the emerging movement the “Condom Revolution”.
Putin answered the two questions I asked ( probably they had been posted by many others as well). He promised to stop one of the most insidious developments in modern Russia: the proliferation of offshore trusts and companies and their active participation in Russia’s daily life. These companies rip off the citizenry, pay no taxes and busy themselves taking their ill-gotten gains away to tax-free havens. Usually they operate Enron-style rackets familiar to Americans : they take over existing systems and fleece the customers.
The weekly Russian Reporter published a story about a Cyprus-based offshore company which took over municipal heating for the small Urals township of Pervouralsk. They bought heat at a fixed price from the producer and charged triple that price to the customer. The Cyprus company belongs to oligarch Victor Vexelberg who was able to ensure that their bid for the contract would be accepted. Vladimir Putin mentioned many similar cases of high-ranking state officials who grant profitable contracts to offshore companies closely connected to their friends or relatives.
He also says he does not intend to raise the taxes or make them progressive – like a right-wing utopia, Russia has a flat rate (15 per cent) tax. He also refused to deal with the hated oligarchs. Putin openly admitted that they obtained their assets by subterfuge and theft, but he said it can’t be taken back. This was a big disappointment for many listeners. Still, if Putin will implement what he promised: restrict offshore companies and give more power to the electorate, the bottom line of the rallies will be positive. The authorities should be pushed, otherwise they do not move. For this reason I, for one, see these rallies as a positive development.
Meanwhile, the parties called their supporters to participate in separate demos on December 18; all – from the Communists to the moderate Yabloko – had little success, with attendance about three thousand max. Apparently people are not in the mood to join street democracy; or perhaps they are not happy with these old parties either.
Most probably there will be a Christmas recess timeout, but trouble will come to the fore in March, if not sooner. Ordinary Russians outside Moscow are quietly accepting Putin without much enthusiasm, but his position in Moscow is not secure. The top men of the Fronde are well connected with wealthy and powerful insiders who dislike Putin’s regime; they feel that he limits their ambitions. They would like to have more. It’s not like they have too little: Russia is awash with millionaires and billionaires, but they want to rule too. This new super-rich class has its representatives in the Kremlin, and apparently they have working arrangements with state-owned and private-owned media. Some Russian observers connect incumbent president Medvedev with this submerged group; others see Prokhorov as its preferred leader.
While a plurality of voters voted for communists, the people in power have quite different desires. In 1990, the people who destroyed communism and the Soviet Union were leading members of its own party cadres; it is possible that the Putin regime will be undone in turn by its own nomenklatura. This is likely to happen if Putin fails to seize the initiative.
Some of the Putin regime’s defences, namely the United Russia party and its youth movements, appear weak. The new structure, the Popular Front, is still untried. People do not know how serious Putin is about power. Putin’s true test will be in deeds, not words. If the heads of the hated and allegedly corrupt officials (including Anatoly Chubais) were to roll, if the offshore companies were to be forced to reveal its real owners and pay taxes, if resources were taken away from the oligarchs and re-nationalised, people would feel they have a reason to defend Putin. As things now stand, though the Snow Fronde (aka “condom revolutionaries”) are not well known outside of Moscow, people in general would passively accept the fall of Putin, just as they previously accepted the fall of the Tsar and of Gorbachev, or indeed, as Alexander Pushkin makes the point in his Boris Godunov (now made into an excellent film), as they typically acquiesce to the fall of any ruler.
Israel Shamir can be reached at email@example.com