Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: Stifling Protest

E!Sharp, 1st March 2009 09:50

As the temperature hovered at fifteen degrees below zero, the opposition politician walked onto one of Moscow’s main squares with a handful of supporters. His intention: to rail against the government for its handling of the economic crisis.

Russia, like the rest of the world, is suffering and unemployment is on the rise. For perhaps 15 seconds, the politician, a controversial radical called Eduard Limonov, was unmolested. Then, within the blink of an eyelid, riot police surrounded him. Ten seconds later, he was roughly dragged into a nearby truck. His small act of defiance was over before it had begun. Limonov, 65, spent that night in the cells.

Public protests in Russia are a curious affair. It sometimes seems like those holding them, opposition figures starved of TV face time by the Kremlin, want to be arrested. That, after all, is the only way they can generate a modicum of publicity. Conversely, the authorities try to silence dissenting voices using a measure of force that though decisive will not turn those they are repressing into martyrs. Like many things in Russia, the situation is Kafkaesque. On paper, freedom of expression and assembly do exist. In practice, you can only hold a protest if the authorities say yes (and they often don’t). Winning official approval to protest is in any case a mixed blessing. Frequently, the authorities will designate a venue and a set of rules that mean nobody will hear your voice anyway.

One issue on which the Kremlin is happier to stir debate is Lenin’s tomb. The father of the Bolshevik revolution died in 1924 and his embalmed corpse was later put on display in a mausoleum on Red Square. Since then, tens of millions of people have visited what became a place of pilgrimage for communists the world over. But if Russia’s ruling elite has its way, Lenin’s days of being a museum piece may be drawing to a close. In a sign the government is testing public opinion on the issue, one of the nation’s top-rated talk shows recently devoted a prime-time programme to the subject. The show was broadcast on state-controlled Channel One whose scheduling is often directly agreed with top apparatchiks. Public opinion on the issue has also shifted. In 1999, only 43 percent of Russians backed Lenin’s removal. Today, that figure is over 60 percent. Mere talk of removing Lenin’s body from its spot beneath the Kremlin’s red walls is, of course, heresy for the modern-day Russian Communist Party. But for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his associates, the move might be politically expedient. It would speed a process they have long sought: the end of the Communist Party as a viable political force. Indeed, as the economic crisis stirs social unrest the Communist Party is clearly hoping to capitalise. If the situation deteriorates, the Kremlin may be sorely tempted to bury Lenin and – it would hope – his political heirs’ electoral prospects along with him.

Sitting opposite Putin at his residence just outside Moscow at the height of the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute was to see a man revelling in a crisis. It was a virtuoso performance full of pithy one-liners, jokey asides, fierce rhetoric, and – as you would expect – trenchant criticism of Ukraine. But working out who was really to blame for a cut-off that damaged both Russia’s and Ukraine’s image and prompted the EU to begin reviewing its energy policy remained near impossible. It was essentially a “he said, she said” dispute obscured by technical detail and misleading claims from both sides.

What did come across during that long evening though was Putin’s attitude towards the EU. He chastised the 27-nation bloc for not doing enough to pressure Ukraine and characterised the dispute – in a pretty offhand manner – as the EU’s problem, not Russia’s. His nonchalance underlined a common Kremlin view: that for all its huffing and puffing about the dangers of being too dependent on Russia for its energy needs, the EU doesn’t really have many other options anytime soon.

If the gas crisis showed one thing it was that Putin, and not his handpicked presidential successor Dmitri Medvedev, remains firmly in charge. It was Putin not Medvedev who made most of the running. Since then, there have been some small signs that Medvedev may be trying to carve out a distinct role from his mentor, raising hopes among liberals of a thaw. That in turn has fuelled debate about a split between the two men and speculation that the era of Vladimir Putin may be on the wane. But hard evidence of such a split remains thin and opinion polls show Putin’s support remains rock solid. The economic crisis clearly does pose the greatest threat to Putin’s power base since 2000. But he just doesn’t look like a man about to exit the stage sideways, bowing as he goes.