Andrew Osborn








No, Vladimir Putin isn't getting soft. He's just giving 'the bear' some breathing space, 27th October 2010 20:29

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow

Protests against Vladimir Putin, Russia’s all-powerful prime minister, are rare. But last Saturday the Kremlin allowed hundreds of people to gather in central Moscow to chant “Down with Putin” for two hours until they were blue in the face.

Speakers blamed Mr Putin for the country’s worsening corruption problem, for the gaping chasm between rich and poor, and accused him of forging a police state that ruthlessly suppressed dissenting voices.

Organisers could not believe their luck. “The request to hold the demonstration must have somehow slipped through,” said one incredulous activist, speculating that it was because Moscow’s new mayor had not yet got down to work properly.

Though the Russian constitution technically guarantees freedom of assembly, the Kremlin has spent much of the last decade crushing meaningful protest with riot police. So Saturday’s event seemed something of a watershed.

On Monday, Russia’s enfeebled anti-Kremlin opposition was given further grounds for optimism. For the first time, the authorities agreed to allow it to demonstrate on a central Moscow square on the 31st of the month, something activists have been trying to do unsuccessfully for the last eleven months. The opposition chose the that date each month because it is the 31st article in the Russian constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly. Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, has fuelled what has become a growing sense of optimism.  Earlier this month, he said the authorities were now “completely relaxed” about opposition street protests.

It would be heartening to think that the Kremlin really has had a Damascene conversion. But history suggests it would be wise to keep the champagne on ice. Rather than a long overdue concession by an authoritarian state anxious to pay lip service to democracy, allowing the protests probably has more to do with the Kremlin’s instinct for self-preservation.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently warned that the Kremlin’s alleged indifference to ordinary people risked sparking mass protests.

“When people realise that their opinion does not matter and that nothing depends on them they will take to the streets,” Mr Gorbachev, told this month’s issue of Snob magazine.

“The extreme patience of our people coupled with the indifference of the authorities could end in terrible outbreaks of protests and complete chaos may follow.”

The Kremlin may be thinking along similar lines. It probably sees authorising what are frankly pretty tame and small-scale demonstrations as a safety valve that allows Russian society to let off steam.

The Russian public’s stereotypical association with bears is not completely misleading. Like bears, history has shown that Russians are capable of sleeping (or enduring appalling suffering) for staggeringly long periods of time. But when their anger is piqued and they awaken from their slumber their fury knows no bounds. Every leader who has sat in the Kremlin since the 1917 Russian Revolution will have had that thought firmly lodged in the back of their minds.

For now there are no signs of serious social unrest though tens of millions of Russians who live outside Moscow and St. Petersburg remain mired in poverty and worn down by a state apparatus that has grown expert at feeding off its own corpse. The Kremlin’s sudden bout of generosity may turn out to be short-lived. It may also be tactical. Russia faces parliamentary elections next year and a presidential vote in 2012. By allowing the opposition to show what it can do – even briefly – the Kremlin can judge how strong or weak its opponents really are. For now, the answer is very weak.