As the Russian opposition prepares for another mass rally in the center of Moscow on December 24th, all the contenders for the presidency have been accounted for and the new State Duma members have taken their places in parliament. The shape of things to come in Russian politics has become clearer. We are in for a very interesting few months.
The authorities clearly count on the opposition’s activity declining after the New Year and Christmas season. They did take notice of the protests though. Their receipt for fending off the challenge is removing several old faces from the front row, like former parliament speaker Boris Gryzolv, whose main claim to fame is a pronouncement that parliament “is not a place for debate”.
Another Kremlin trend will probably be following up on some of the vague promises already made by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. Opposition parties like Vladimir Ryzhkov’s Republican Party or Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov’s Party of Popular Freedom may get official registration. There may be a return to some form of electing regional governors. And it is clear now that opposition rallies will be tolerated and would probably get some coverage on state-controlled TV. Which is definitely more than anyone could hope for even three months ago.
Still, this may well be not enough soon.
The disparate and generally leaderless opposition proved surprisingly effective at organization. Using Internet payment money transfer facilities it organized a collection to pay the organizational expenses of the December 24th rally. By Wednesday, the sum accumulated online reached 2,5 million roubles (more than 80,000 US dollars). This proved that civic leaders are good at harnessing the popular mood and using modern technology.
And the fact that the opposition lacks a single leader for now (although blogger and lawyer Alexei Navalny is clearly positioning himself as one) actually works to its advantage for the time being. It helps to keep everyone under a big tent and attracting a lot of people to street protests. But it was actually interesting to see that at the December 10th rally in Moscow people cheered much more loudly for non-politicians (writers, TV personalities, anti-corruption activists) than seasoned political fighters like Nemtsov, Ryzhkov or Kasyanov.
This “leaderless” period may last until the presidential elections in March, in which no new and independent opposition leaders will be running. The opposition is expected to call on its supporters to vote for anyone but Putin to try to push the elections towards a second round. This in their view would show that Putin's grip on Russia has weakened – which it undoubtedly has.
Most Moscow observers believe that Putin will aim to win in the first round – to prove the contrary. However, paradoxically, Putin's victory in the first round could weaken him, as in this case allegations of widespread electoral fraud would no doubt reach much higher levels than in December. This would only deepen the crisis of legitimacy that Putin's government experiences.
Having a run off, especially against the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov would actually serve Putin. It would be easy to say that Russia has a genuine democracy and split the opposition, as many of its sympathizers would rather vote for Putin or abstain than give their ballot paper away to the dated, gray and boring Zyuganov.
There is no sign for now that Putin realizes the depth of his problems. Until now he proved to be a rather apt tactician but not a very good strategist. He doesn't seem to appreciate that sometimes one has to loose a battle to win a war. He treats every concession as the ultimate defeat, especially when it comes to his personal political fortunes. This may prove to be his biggest problem. If he gets his electoral strategy wrong his own supporters, including high-level bureaucracy, could start distancing themselves from him, as it happened already twice in the last 20 years – first with Mikhail Gorbachev, then, to a lesser extent, with Boris Yeltsin.
The opposition's honeymoon with the public will also end by spring, if not earlier. The fact that the old, Duma-based and Kremlin-friendly opposition parties are seriously discredited creates a breakthrough for the new faces to emerge. But those who took to the streets in December and will no doubt do so during the presidential campaign will soon want to see a coherent forward looking program and a line up of leaders capable of formulating coherent forward looking policies. As I already mentioned, politics is back in Russian life with a vengeance. But it will become more and more complex with every new week.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.