Boris Gryzlov, a former State Duma chairman, staunch Vladimir Putin partisan and (in)famous purveyor of awkward quips, once remarked that “parliament is not a place for discussions.”
In his own weird way he was right – especially the previous, 5th Duma, where the pro-Putin United Russia party had a constitutional, two-thirds majority, rarely debated anything. It was rubber stamp legislature that reminded those of us who remember of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
Not anymore. In a tumultuous June 5 session, debate finally returned – and with gusto.
The most outspoken opposition force A Just Russia together with the Communists - and even the usually loyal “liberal democrats” of Vladimir Zhirinovsky - were fighting tooth and nail to prevent adoption of the draconian law, which imposes exorbitant fines on citizens and organizations that “break the rules of public gatherings.”
United Russia, which now commands a bare majority in the lower house of parliament, initiated the law in order to be able to clamp down on the protest activities and fine the opposition out of existence. With Russian courts notoriously subservient to the state, it may now cost your average Ivan Ivanovich 300,000 roubles ($10,000) if he accidentally overturns a public garbage bin or argues with the police at a rally. For organizers the fines go up to 1,000,000 roubles ($30,000).
This effectively amounts to a severe curtailment of the constitutionally granted freedom of assembly.
The opposition in parliament tried to delay adoption of the law by a tactic not dissimilar to a U.S. Senate filibuster. It proposed hundreds of amendments, which were read in a deliberately slow fashion in order to extend the session beyond reason and prevent the adoption of the law before a mass rally scheduled for June 12.
It did not work. United Russia rammed the bill through on June 5. The Federation Council (the upper chamber) followed suit in a blitz vote on June 6.
So has the Kremlin won?
I am certain the answer is “no.” In fact the bill will, in all probability, have an outcome that is the exact opposite of what its authors intended to happen. It has legitimized the disorganized and fractured opposition as a force to be reckoned with. This goes beyond its quarrelling leaders’ wildest dreams. The lengths to which Putin’s supporters in parliament went to bend the constitution out of shape, testifies to the fact that the Kremlin considers the seemingly disparate crowds that hit the Moscow streets real opponents. This will have consequences.
When the bill was adopted, two prominent but vastly different public figures in Russia took to their Twitter feeds to vent their feelings. Leonid Gozman, formerly co-chairman of the now defunct center-right Union of Right Forces party, a classic non-confrontational systemic “liberal” opined: “The authorities have brought another 1917-style revolution that much closer”. Mitya Aleshkovsky, a young photographer and popular blogger, tweeted: “Thanks to United Russia, the demise of the regime is much closer now”.
I concur with both. By adopting a grotesque law, the authorities antagonized the population of major cities beyond the point of no return. Their calculus is to deliberately radicalize the protesters, provoke them into doing something “illegal” – which is pretty much just showing up at a rally – and imposing exemplary punishments on the most active ones. “It is us or chaos”, – this is the dilemma that the Kremlin wants the society (and the West) to accept – and decide that they are the lesser of two evils.
The problem with this tactic, as eminent European political scientists Ivan Krastev put it recently, is that when you tell the people “There is no alternative” they usually respond: “Any alternative to the status quo is better.”
In this respect both Gozman and Aleshkovsky are right – we’ll see more, not fewer, regular folks protesting. The more of them hit the streets, the more difficult it will be for the government to impose fines. Dozens of citizens refusing to pay up will become a headache for the Kremlin and free advertising for the opposition. This snowball of protest may lead to the most unexpected and abrupt of results – and much sooner than anyone thinks it will. I hope the outcome will be more like Warsaw or Prague in 1989 than St. Petersburg in 1917.
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.