The Futile Demonstrations in Russia

As he watched a protest demonstration of perhaps 25,000 Russian citizens dissolve into the chilly Moscow night on December 10, 2011, the New York Times Russia correspondent Michael Schwirtz issued a final tweet from his vantage point on the protest square.

Schwirtz wrote: "Police spox said 'no arrests yet, and don't expect any.' He laughed and seemed to be enjoying #10dec," using the Twitter hashtag assigned to the event.

Make no mistake: Vladimir Putin, too, was beaming from ear to ear as he looked down from his Kremlin tower upon the assembled throng.

He was smiling at major cities like Vladivostok and Kazan, which totally ignored the call to protest, producing anemic groups of a few hundred at most.

He was smiling at major cities like Novosibirsk, where a larger group of perhaps two thousand thronged to the streets.  They were all members of the Communist Party, the runner-up in the recent parliamentary elections that saw Putin's party of power, United Russia, take a majority of the seats, with no serious opposition party other than the Communists taking a single one.  United Russia now has more seats in parliament than all other parties therein combined.

The protesters were demonstrating because of widespread allegations that United Russia had stolen votes -- stolen them brazenly and shamelessly, in a manner that offended the intelligence of the average citizen.  In other words, the protesters were contending that the second-place Communist Party really ought to have received far more seats in parliament than it got, and so should the party of rabid, racist, anti-American nationalist psycho Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who placed fourth in the official count. 

There was one party allowed on the ballot that didn't quite qualify as a Kremlin stooge -- namely, Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko.  Though Yavlinsky is gutless and hopeless, he does at least talk a different, more democratic game from what the rest are preaching.  Almost nobody voted for Yavlinsky's party, and it didn't win a single seat in parliament.  Only someone really desperate for a news story would consider all that evidence of encouraging progress in Russia.  Yet many Russia correspondents are just that desperate, and they reported the story just that way.

But most of all, Vladimir Putin was smiling at Moscow -- smiling at what Moscow Times reporter tweeted from the protest square was a "jumble of communists and nationalists" with no leader, no agenda, no organization, no financing, and no hope of placing a credible candidate on the ballot next March for president.

When his eyes turned to what passed for leadership on the square in Moscow, Putin no doubt burst out laughing.  There was Bozhena Rynska, the Russian Paris Hilton,  front and center, emphasizing that these protests were not about substance, not about the country -- just about a cadre of communists and nationalists boosted by another group of young hipsters who'd decided that demonstrating was the new black, a funny goof to pass an idle weekend until the next red carpet.  Putin had at least twice as many secret and riot police goons surrounding the protest square as the demonstrators could muster inside it.  His goons were better-organized, better-dressed, and better-led than the protesters.  It was no contest.  Putin's guys could afford to be generous.

Putin's beaming, mirthful confidence, transmitted down through his KGB cadres man by man, is genuinely terrifying.  He is now a dictator in full, swaggering through the corridors of power in the Kremlin having successfully designated himself president for life, sure in the knowledge that there are none who can oppose him.  First and foremost, Putin knows that the president of the United States, a Chamberlainian coward, won't do so, and that even if he were to try, Putin could use claims of "foreign intervention" to further propagate his neo-Soviet regime, just as he did when Hillary Clinton made a few critical comments about the recent election.

Putin has reason to be confident.  He knows that after he is proclaimed "president" three months from now, there won't be another election in Russia until 2016.  Even if there were some type of grassroots opposition movement, in other words, that movement would have to sustain itself somehow for five long, grueling years of oppression and repression, as Putin slowly tightens the screws on the neo-Soviet dictatorship he has been patiently building since the late 1990s.

But there isn't any such movement.  If there were, that movement would have had something to say before the parliamentary elections, when Putin effortlessly erased the name of each and every legitimate opposition political party from the ballot.  Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov have been emphatically denied participation, as has former parliament member Valdimir Ryzhkov.  Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, too, was left out in the cold, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky remains under indefinite detention.

And as Putin gazes at Europe, he sees only confusion and financial panic.  Buoyed by its oil resources, Russia, Putin believes, can ride out the European crisis and emerge in a position to exercise the same kind of pressure over Eastern Europe that Putin's idol, the USSR, once did.  He hopes that Barack Obama will be reelected, that Republicans will continue to be distracted by infighting and domestic economic issues, and that he will be able to continue fomenting terror and upheaval in the Middle East so as to keep oil prices high and Russian coffers full.

The breathless statements of the Russia correspondents reporting on the December 10 protests remind me of similar statements made when Russians thronged to the streets in the early 1990s to block a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.  Those statements were deeply misguided.  Soon after that, we saw Yeltsin bomb his own White House and then appoint Vladimir Putin, a proud KGB spy, as his successor.  We watched as Putin mercilessly rolled back democratic reforms and recreated a Soviet-type autocracy.

And there are big differences between the 1990s and now.  Yeltsin was a real, fearless, charismatic, galvanizing leader.  In today's Russia, opposition forces have no such leader and are not unified.  More important, the Soviet system was collapsing into bankruptcy and basically unable to defend itself.  It was also lacking in resolute leadership.  The Putin government is lifted by oil revenues, and Putin is totally determined to maintain Soviet-style power, using any necessary means to do so.  Finally, Yeltsin came in at the tail-end of the Reagan era, when America was fully engaged in opposition to Soviet dictatorship.  Now, there is no such leadership in Washington, D.C.

So anyone who thinks that something important is happening now in Russia is misguided.  Such statements are actually harmful, because they give the protesters a false sense of achievement.  Russians need to face the cold, hard fact that brutal suffering will be required to turn back the clock on the Putin dictatorship, and there are very few Russians who think their country is worth that struggle.  Russians are leaving the country rather than walk into such a meat grinder, and it's very hard to blame them.

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