Opposition leaders at an anti-Putin protest. From left, Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny. Source: Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR
Three years ago, Russia witnessed its largest anti-government protests since the early Nineties, with four mass demonstrations in a month, the largest of which drew an estimated 150,000 people to the streets of Moscow. Today, opposition rallies struggle to attract 10,000. President Vladimir Putin enjoys ratings as high as 88pc, nearly double those of December 2011. The leaders of the 2011 protests have largely left the scene: some are in prison, others abroad, a few have joined the regime. Does it mean that Russia’s protest movement is dead? Or is it merely dormant, ready to be revived when conditions are right?
A fatal typo
The spark that ignited the protest movement came late on December 4, 2011, when state television, reporting early results from parliamentary elections to the State Duma, indicated that United Russia had polled 146pc of the votes. It was a simple mistake in an on-screen graphic, but for many it was confirmation the elections were rigged. In Chechnya, according to the Central Electoral Commission, United Russia polled 98.6pc of votes; in Caucasian regions, Kabardino-Balkaria 98.2pc and Karachay-Cherkessia 93.2pc, and in Moscow 46.6pc. Opposition activists said this was impossible; many, particularly in Moscow, felt it insulted their intelligence.
Kasparov joins demonstration
The next day, 15,000 people turned out on the streets for a demonstration staged by the Solidarnost movement, then headed by former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, chess champion Garry Kasparov and activist Ilya Yashin. Alexei Navalny, lawyer and initiator of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, was also present. The last time Moscow had witnessed such public unrest was in 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin’s clash with opponents ended with the shelling of Moscow’s White House. Independent polsters Levada Centre says participants were “actively recruited via social media sites. The demonstrators were activists, intellectuals, young people, ie Moscow Facebook users.”
Looking back at the protests, Mr Nemtsov says: “There were many reasons to take to the streets. Not a single opposition party had been permitted to take part in the elections. We did not expect so many people to turn out. We were quite unprepared for that.”
Sergei Udaltsov head of Left Front, another of the opposition leaders, was not there – he was briefly behind bars under administrative detention – but was also incredulous. “All of the protests we’d organised that year, regardless of their importance, had only ever attracted the same small crowd of activists.”
Birth of opposition
The December 5 protest marked the birth of a new opposition coalition that included liberals, left-wingers and nationalists. It concluded with an improvised attempt to walk to the Kremlin, which was swiftly broken up by the police. There were more than 300 arrests. Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin were held for 15 days, and the next day, Interior Ministry troops were drafted into Moscow. It was seen as aggressive, provoking even more discontent among Muscovites.
A demonstration held on December 10, drew 100,000 people, according to Novaya Gazeta, to the city’s Bolotnaya Square. Demonstrators adopted a resolution calling for the resignation of the central election commission head, Vladimir Churov, annulment of the results and a new election, with opposition parties on the ballot. There were demands for the release of political prisoners, including the jailed billionaire Yukos founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Bolotnaya had become a symbol of the protest.
But the first divisions within the protest movement leaders were already emerging. There was no common vision on the next steps. “Democrats had tried to unite before, in 2003, but it did not work. There’s long been division within the nationalists; half their leaders are suspected of working with the FSB or presidential administration,” says former Kommersant journalist Andrei Kozenko. Mr Kozenko now writes for Meduza.io, the Riga-based news site set up by journalists who left the Russian news service, Lenta.ru, after its chief editor Galina Timchenko was sacked earlier this year.
Close to the opposition leaders at the time, Mr Kozenko recalls that the people who came to Bolotnaya held a wide range of political beliefs. “Each had a different understanding of what the protests meant,” he says.
After Bolotnaya, Eduard Limonov’s Other Russia party left the coalition. Radical nationalists soon followed because they had been denied a voice. Sergei Udaltsov was also unhappy, although he remained in the coalition, which would later call itself the Co-ordination Council of the Opposition (CCO).
The opposition increased the pace of its activities and began calling protests several times a month, organising concerts and excursions along Moscow’s leafy Boulevard Ring or arranging anti-Putin car races on the city’s inner Garden Ring road. It even formed its own independent proto-parliament, all agreed with the authorities.
The biggest demonstration, which according to the National News Agency, attracted 150,000 people was held on December 24, 2011 on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospect, but the opposition had peaked. Most ordinary Muscovites were tired of hearing the same old slogans: “Putin out!” and “Party of crooks and thieves”. They wanted not just criticism, but constructive ideas for improving the country.
Whether the opposition actually had such plans is unclear, but nothing was ever made public. The Levada Centre says “a lack of action programmes worried most activists and leaders of the protest movement”.
The point was not lost on those Russians who initially supported the protests. “We realised that going on these marches was actually useless, even unfashionable,” says Nikita Denisov, 33, who took part in protests in St Petersburg in December 2011.
“People became disillusioned with the very form of the protests,” recalls Yelena Bobrova, 29, a Muscovite who took part in the Bolotnaya protest and other actions at the time. “We took to the streets thinking that we could make a difference, but only met with indifference not only from those in power, but our friends and relatives, too.”
The turning point came on May 6, 2012, on the eve of Mr Putin’s inauguration for a third term when, again at Bolotnaya, the opposition marshalled just 20,000 people. A hard core tried to set up a permanent camp, complete with tents and banners. The Kremlin was prepared.
Heroic status lost
Criminal charges of organising mass disorder were brought against Left Front leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev, who were both sentenced to four and a half years’ detention.
Three years later, they have lost their status as heroes and Russian society’s concerns are less political and more economic. Some believe that recession may spark discontent. But would it be possible to repeat Bolotnaya today?
“We could see mass protests in the next two years, inspired not by political, but social and economic factors,” says Vladimir Ryzhkov, co-chair of liberal-leaning party RPR-Parnas.
Georgy Chizhov, of Moscow’s Centre for Political Technologies, doubts major unrest is on the cards. “It’s difficult to imagine a repetition of Bolotnaya. Kremlin rhetoric has changed. Russians are now divided between ‘us’ and ‘national traitors’. Liberals cannot protest; they would be going against most of society.”
Where are they now?Former opposition leaders have had widely different fates over the past three years.
Alexei Navalny rode the crest of a wave until July last year, when he was found guilty of fraud and put under house arrest. He was allowed to run for mayor of Moscow against the United Russia candidate Sergei Sobyanin, finishing second.
Sergei Udaltsov is also under house arrest on charges of inciting public unrest during the Bolotnaya protest of May 6, 2012, even though he agrees with Kremlin policy on Ukraine, including the
annexation of Crimea.
Boris Nemtsov took a seat in the Yaroslavl Regional Duma 150 miles from Moscow.
Ilya Yashin is often seen in Moscow cafes, his current political activities are not clear.
Garry Kasparov spends most of his time in the USA.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, pardoned last year, now lives in Switzerland.
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