As dusk started settling upon Moscow on June 12, I felt a huge relief. Only a few hours ago tension in the city was barely palpable. As Muscovites gathered for the “last big rally of the political season,” as one commentator elegantly put it, expectations of violence between the police and anti-government demonstrations were high. Late last week, Vladimir Putin signed a law approving new harsh measures against those who break the rules of conducting public gatherings (which in Russia means pretty much what the Kremlin-controlled police and prosecution decide constitutes breaking the rules). The law imposes tough fines on both organizations and individuals and is clearly aimed at snuffing the protests out through fear of financial reprisals.
When the law was adopted by the Russian parliament, I wrote here that it would lead to a directly opposite result from the intended one, i.e., it will spur the protests on rather than halt them. Only a week later, I am satisfied that I did not mislead the audience.
The June 12th rally was the biggest and possibly the best organized since the protests started in December 2011. This was nearly miraculous bearing in mind the fact that the day before armed police raided the homes of the leading opposition figures, officially as part of the investigation of the May 6th rally, during which protesters clashed with police. Anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, TV diva Ksenia Sobchak, radical Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov and ‘Solidarity’ movement frontman Ilya Yashin among others were targeted. Even their relatives were not spared. Computers, iPads, mobile phones and flash storage devices were confiscated. When I called former vice-prime minister Boris Nemtsov (his apartment was also searched) later in the evening to inquire about his condition, he laughed: “Kostya, you won’t believe it - they swooped up all the gadgets from the apartment!”
But instead of frightening their supporters, these clumsy actions seeming only made public anger flare up. Having talked to the regular folks who hit Moscow’s Boulevard Ring, spouses, children and dogs in tow, one could not escape the impression that for many of them these raids and searches were the turning point, the moment they decided they had to participate.
The police behaved exemplarily and this made me think that President Vladimir Putin was still not prepared to go down the way his neighbor and ally, Byelorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko went, i.e. just ban all the rallies. He was wise not to do this. June 11 and 12 signified a new stage in Russia’s slowly but surely unfolding political crisis. Firstly, the protests haven’t died down, as many observers here claimed after Putin returned as president on May 7th. Secondly, he has lost Moscow, and this is irreversible. There was no attempt to organize a counter-rally in support of Putin, and even the restless pro-Kremlin youth movements, routinely referred to by the Moscow public as “Putin Jugend,” were invisible. This bodes badly for the Russian strongman. No Russian ruler was ever able to run the country for long having forfeited the confidence of the capital’s population. Moscow turned into a political battleground. It will be increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to keep it under control. Popular Russian fiction writer Boris Akunin remarked on June 13: “Something else, something new has to be done.”
This brings me to a third point: the protest movement is maturing quite visibly. During the rally, a joint opposition manifesto was adopted which is a product of consensus of the three main political forces forming the opposition – the liberals, the leftists and the moderate nationalists. It sets out a definitive program on which all political forces agree: Vladimir Putin’s resignation, changing electoral laws and holding new elections, cleaning up the judiciary and the police. What is probably most important, the manifesto explicitly states that the opposition will employ only peaceful and legal means and calls for roundtable talks with the “reasonable representatives” of Russia’s political regime. The call is clearly addressed to those civil servants and functionaries who suspect that the system Putin has built is unsustainable and needs to be replaced. The suggestion that these people cross over the lines to the protesters will not please the Russian president and in fact should worry him.
As autumn approaches, the opposition becomes more focused and will start fielding candidates in local elections. And on October 7, it promises to open a “new political season” with the biggest rally ever. The choice of date is not accidental. On this day Vladimir Putin will turn sixty.
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.