The anticipated apocalypse did not come to pass. The presidential election in Russia ran its course, Putin was duly elected, and to the great astonishment of the opposition, multimillion crowds demanding the blood of the tyrant did not materialize. Only some 15,000 protesters gathered in central Moscow and dispersed peacefully within two hours. Only a remaining hundred hardcore activists were resolved “to stay until Putin goes” in the frozen city fountain. They were removed by police, charged and released. What a flop!
An inspired spokesperson of the Whites, a returnee from New York Masha Gessen, self-described “Jewish Lesbian, a sworn enemy of the Putin regime”, a blogger for the NY Times, “extremely influential”, according to Newsweek, who has just published with Riverhead a book prophesying the swift fall of Putin, predicted (or called for) 200,000 angry Russians tearing down the walls of Kremlin and washing with blood the streets on March 5. Rarely has a forecast failed so profoundly.
The last rally had its funny moments. The radicals came with quite obscene slogans against Putin and against his electorate. They booed down almost everybody including the billionaire oligarch Mr Prokhorov who tried his luck with them. It was rather cold, almost 20 degrees F (-6°C), and the call of Udaltsov and Navalny to stay put was met with visible disbelief. Navalny looked extremely unhappy; he spoke of the need to build a movement from scratch. The police behaved very well; even the participants lauded its polite and respectful attitude. US cops could take a lesson from Moscow riot police how to be cool.
Until it happened, nobody was sure of the outcome. Opposition leaders I asked privately told me that they didn’t know; the government wasn’t sure and brought in thousands of troops and riot police, menacingly located in the backyards, happily remaining uncalled for. City hall permitted all the rallies applied for, at the time and place they asked; there were no logistic problems, the location of the main opposition demo was in Pushkin square, the Moscow equivalent of Times Square in New York. All in vain: people did not come.
They were sobered by the vote. Some 40,000 observers drafted from all walks of life were stationed at the booths; there were web-cameras checking every corner near the booths for possible fraud. Relatively open-minded observers had had a chance to see that in transparent elections people did vote for Putin. Not overwhelmingly (64 per cent is not a North Korean kind of result), but convincingly. A few liberal bloggers had a change of heart and sobbingly admitted that they had witnessed fair elections and heard vox populi. For this reason, calls by Navalny, Yashin, Udaltsov and other White leaders to declare the vote “illegitimate” fell on deaf ears.
Only a few hardcore activists kept claiming that the vote was fraudulent; other Whites lamented that they had to share this planet with such a rabble. The deputy chief editor of the main White broadcaster Echo Moskvy, Vladimir Varfolomeev, wrote in his blog that “the social base of Putin regime, 40 to 50 million Russians, has to be eliminated” for democracy to win. This remark was widely interpreted as a call for genocide. Other Whites disparagingly called the Putin electorate “sprats” and other endearing terms; one or two declared their intention to emigrate to Israel. They plan for more rallies, but the feeling is that the orange bubble has burst.
The activists are heart-broken, dashed in their expectations. Their cause, that of fair elections, is dead. Demonization of Putin did not work; to the contrary, it pushed many stubborn Russians back into the fold. Now they look for a new cause, and it seems they have chosen confrontation with the church. After the failure, their first action was in support of four punk-rockers who made a nuisance of themselves in a Moscow cathedral. This is not likely to endear them to the broad masses, as the Russians are quite devout to their national church.
The communists did rather well, but their tactics in the aftermath of the elections were confusing and lacklustre. Mr Zuganov chose neither to recognize nor congratulate Mr Putin; the Party called for a rally but did not mobilize its cadres and it flopped, for the ordinary Communists did not understand the message. Probably a new person at the helm of the party instead of tired Mr Zuganov will be able to change things in time for the next elections.
Moscow is different
Analysis of the election results shows that Moscow voted differently from the rest of the country. Russia’s social disparity was translated into electoral numbers very neatly. Elsewhere, second place was taken by the Communist contender Mr Gennady Zuganov (18 per cent); in Moscow it was ceded by the Communists in favour of the bon-vivant oligarch Mr Mikhail Prokhorov who received a very robust 20 per cent as opposed to 7 per cent in Russia generally.
Even more revealing were the results in separate electoral districts: the more well-to-do neighborhoods of Moscow voted handsomely for Prokhorov, in the best and most expensive areas he got up to 40 per cent of the vote. Prokhorov and his people called for a neoliberal agenda, less taxation for business, longer working hours, dismantling of the remnants of social protection including central heating that makes Russian homes so warm in the winter. Naturally he could not hope to win the average Russian heart, but the well-heeled voted for him, though they made their fortunes under Putin.
Putin brought this result upon himself: he allowed Moscow to become the vortex of money flows. More money comes and stays in Moscow than in the rest of Russia. Once, Moscow had a big working class population, many factories, good conditions for workers, for the workers were the mainstay of the Soviet regime. But for last 20 years Moscow has been deindustrialised, factories closed, the working class shrunk, while the locals made a killing renting out their state-provided apartments.
The results of elections in Moscow could have been even worse for Putin but for the bussing of voters from industrial townships. The bussed voters were also citizens of Russia and the bussing did not change the overall results; it changed the results for separate districts, and so it obscured the dangerous disparity between Moscow and the rest of the country. In some expensive areas of Moscow where little if any bussing took place, Prokhorov gathered almost as many votes as Putin. In London and Tel Aviv, where many Russian citizens voted, Prokhorov won hands down, and Putin was nowhere.
If Putin wants to remain in power, he must do something about Moscow. The disparity between Moscow and the country has to be equalized. The capital city and its inhabitants are hated by the country folk, and this feeling could allow Putin to shift resources away from this too-rich city.
His bigger problem is with the oligarchs. Will he try to fit their agenda? This is a distinct possibility. Though at the time of upsurge and hate-Putin rallies, he appealed to the patriotism of activists and intellectuals, and they saved him by the miracle at the Poklonnaya Mount, they are far from certain that he will not forget them in the time of his victory. Ditto Mr Rogozin, the fiery nationalist, who was brought home from honorary exile in Brussels. People wonder whether Putin will keep him now.
However, there is a possibility that he will do what the oligarchs fear, namely deal with offshoring and the dishonest dealing of the super-rich. John Helmer, an oldtimer journalist in Moscow with Asia Times, wrote enthusiastically of Putin’s directive VP-P13-9308 of December 28, 2011 available here; he described it “the oligarch killer”. Putin has demanded from CEOs and managers of the state-owned giants that they disclose, in Helmer’s words:
“networks of affiliation between officials and beneficiaries; wives, children and other family members or nominees who have been placed in concealed trusts and bag-holding positions; and chains of offshore cashflows. The state companies include Rosatom, the uranium mining and uranium fuel holding company; Inter RAO UES, the electricity holding company; RusdHydro, the hydroelectric power producer; Irkutskenergo, a southeast regional supplier of electricity; Gazprom; Transneft, the oil pipeline company; Sovcomflot, the state shipping company; Russian Railways; Aeroflot; Rostelecom; and the three state banks – Sberbank, VTB and Vnesheconombank.”
Surprisingly little was written about this in the media before the elections, though any sign of an attack on oligarchs would have brought in extra millions of voters to Putin. There were a couple of reports on TV, and then the matter disappeared from public view. Will Putin continue this struggle against the CEOs who deal with state property in the interests of their families? It is hard to predict whether in the end Putin will dare to fight the oligarchs or will prefer to accommodate them.
If he wants to survive politically, he will have to implement the national agenda, confront the oligarchs, curb the creative class, provide support to those who supported him. But Putin is a master of compromise; he takes decisive action only if necessary. He will be encumbered with Mr Dmitri Medvedev as his prime minister, an extremely inauspicious appointment he could not escape. Though loyal to Putin personally, he is not a good executive. Still it would be difficult to drop him unless he really makes a mess of things.
Russia faces fateful years. There is the danger of an Israeli-American war against Iran; and Iran is Russia’s neighbour and a friend. Syria, though in much better shape after the taking of Homs, is still in trouble, and Syria is the Russian foothold in the Middle East. The future of the Euro and the EC is doubtful, while Europe is Russia’s biggest trading partner. The US is in a presidential election year , a time when its politicians vie with each other to be tougher to the world – and to Russia. In a way, it’s a relief that this important country is in Mr Putin’s hands.
Israel Shamir has been sending dispatches to CounterPunch from Moscow. He can be reached at email@example.com