Due West: Push and pull of Russian power

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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This winter will be the winter of Russia's discontent. When the Christmas holiday season is over, the struggle for power will commence again and reach new levels.

This winter will be the winter of Russia's discontent. When the Christmas holiday season is over, the struggle for power will commence again and reach new levels.

It is clear that the Kremlin has finally taken stock of the situation and decided to defuse the political tensions through a mixture of concessions and intimidation. The  “good cop-bad cop” routine is back in use. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pokes fun at protestors and especially leaders of the opposition, saying «They have no clear program to achieve their unclear aims». He seems to have regained composure since that fateful election night on December 4 when he looked visibly shaken by United Russia's underwhelming performance. At the same time President Dmitry Medvedev and the new Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin propose one political reform after another. Even Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's chief ideologist and eminence grise has complimented the Moscow rally saying that “the best part of Russian society gathered there.” Only a week ago he quipped that he was sick and tired of hearing the protestors' demands.

The most important thing is that former finance minister Alexei Kudrin suddenly emerged on the scene with an offer of mediation between the opposition and the Kremlin. He was booed by the protestors on December 24 but Kudrin was nonplussed and continues to call for a dialogue.

This has immediately split the opposition leaders. Some, like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, are prepared to give the authorities a chance to explain themselves and start changing electoral legislation. Some, mostly left-wing radical and the protest movement’s new superstar Alexei Navalny resolutely oppose any conversation with Putin. Mr. Navalny deemed the presidential elections due in March “illegitimate” as long as they are not conducted according to the new, liberalized legislation, which accidentally would have allowed Navalny to run himself. He promised to lead one million people on a march in February unless the Kremlin changes its attitude. 

The blogger-turned-politician has a point. Mr. Putin has already said that he is interested in the cleanest possible presidential election because he is certain he would win. And he is probably right. The Prime Minister commands formidable financial resources and still has the support of grassroots Russia. His main interest is to turn the presidential contest into an “us-versus-them” show, in which he will represent the downtrodden and poor provincial masses and tame candidates like billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and veteran liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky representing the iPad-carrying, cappuccino-sipping metropolitan rich.

Mr. Putin knows that these people stand little chance against him.

He is probably not as certain to fare as well against Mr. Navalny, who has a powerful populist streak, is young and good-looking, and is a tough debater. But Navalny's problem is that he doesn't have a program and a team to show the seriousness of his claim to power. It is in his interest to delegitimize Putin even as a potential candidate altogether, force the cancellation of elections and run later, without Putin among the contenders.

It is quite possible that the opposition will be split into the “revolutionary” and “evolutionary” wings. This is what the authorities want. They feel that co-opting some of the more moderate protest leaders and pushing the radicals out of the political framework will help calm the situation down. However, this may lead to more trouble instead. As Russian history has repeatedly proved active minorities in politics count more than passive majorities, remember the Bolsheviks in 1917 or Yeltsin and his supporters in 1991?

The problem is that very few people believe that the Kremlin is sincere in its newly found reformist zeal. This lack of credibility is the main problem for Mr. Putin and his supporters. 2012 is very likely to witness a “government hypocrisy vs. street populism” contest. This would be a sad turn for Russian politics to take.

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.

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