Russia still has a flickering candle of dissent. Can it become a bonfire? The Los Angeles Times reports:
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now an opposition leader engaged in a high-stakes political match with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, gamely put the best face on a modest turnout at a recent protest rally. “There could have been many more people here if the authorities did not oppress people so much,” Kasparov told a crowd of about 1,500 at the mid-June rally in a downtown Moscow park. “The authorities feel instinctively that if they allow people to march, there will be 1,000, then 10,000, then 20,000, and then everyone will come to the street.” City officials had refused permission for a march to follow the rally, and there were more police in attendance than protesters. In April, police arrested hundreds of demonstrators from the same coalition, Other Russia, when they sought to stage an unauthorized march.
Kasparov and his allies appear at times to be trying to trigger what some have lightheartedly dubbed a “White Knight” revolution — a democratic ousting of the incumbent power structure following in the footsteps of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The chess master and others say they are aiming at nothing less than winning the presidential election in March 2008. Putin consistently enjoys popularity ratings above 70%, but the Constitution requires him to step down next spring at the end of his second term. Most observers believe that voters, heavily influenced by state-controlled television, will endorse whomever Putin selects as his preferred successor.
The two contenders seen as most likely to win the Kremlin’s nod are First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei B. Ivanov, who after many months of favorable coverage on state-controlled TV are now the country’s most popular politicians after Putin. The most visible potential opposition candidate is former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov, who served during Putin’s first term. He turned against his former boss after being dismissed shortly before Putin’s 2004 reelection and now heads the People’s Democratic Union. Kasyanov, a founding leader of Other Russia, said Monday that the coalition had “fulfilled its mission,” and implied that he was pulling out of it. The move appeared to mark a bid for top leadership of an even broader opposition coalition that would choose him as its candidate. Kasyanov is “a very experienced and skilled negotiator” and he “will continue negotiations and consultations with other opposition forces with the goal to unite around a single candidate,” Tatyana Razbash, spokeswoman for Kasyanov, said Tuesday. Authorities appear nervous about the opposition. For the unauthorized April march in Moscow, 9,000 police officers were called out to control 3,000 protesters.
Range of complaints
The mid-June rally brought together demonstrators from across the political spectrum, including entrepreneurs, former Soviet-era dissidents, students, unhappy pensioners and flag-waving activists from a group that used to be called the National Bolshevik Party but was banned in the spring. “Everyone has their own personal complaint,” Kasparov said. “Issues related to tiny pensions, inflation, lack of freedom, lack of security.”
Businessman Mikhail Kriger, 47, said he attended “to express disagreement over a lot of things in the life of my country that affect my life. I want to see real news on our television,” he said. “I want to elect people in parliament who will really protect the interests of the people and not of a small group of corrupt individuals.” He also complained about the long war that Moscow fought against separatists in Chechnya, expressing fear that someday his son could be sent off to “another war that only suits their selfish goals.”
Kriger compared the rally with the minuscule opposition shown by Muscovites when the Soviet army moved into Afghanistan nearly three decades ago. “In 1979, only a dozen people came out to Red Square to protest against the invasion of Afghanistan, and most thought their protest was useless,” he said. “But a decade later hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets and squares of Moscow, and they toppled the regime.” Regime-toppling through elections was the focus of a June conference by Kasyanov’s group.
The former prime minister delivered a speech endorsing a wish list of popular policies, including massive housing subsidies, a return to free healthcare and free higher education, an end to the military draft, the defeat of inflation, encouragement of entrepreneurship, a crackdown on corruption, modernization of the country’s transport system, production of modern weapons for the army and tax cuts. He implied that the many costly items on that list could be paid for through wiser use of the country’s oil and tax revenues. Kasyanov also took aim at the tough line Moscow has taken with its neighbors and the West during Putin’s second term. “Just yesterday we were surrounded by friends, partners and allies,” he said, “and today we have nothing but enemies.” The conference nominated Kasyanov as its candidate to be the standard-bearer for a united opposition in the March presidential election. In keeping with the effort to unite all forces opposed to Putin, a wide range of politicians was invited to speak.
Among them was Eduard Limonov, a writer who heads the group formerly known as the National Bolshevik Party. Because the group is banned, with Russian newspapers technically not even supposed to print its name, Limonov is often introduced at opposition events as “leader of the nyelzya bolshe proiznosit party,” which means “the party that you are not allowed to pronounce anymore.” Limonov described Russia today as “a fascist corporate state” and endorsed Kasyanov for president.
The leadership council of Yabloko, a party that has long been prominent in the pro-democracy camp, said in mid-June that it planned to nominate its own leader, Grigory A. Yavlinsky, for president. Some saw that announcement as dooming the opposition’s hopes to field a single candidate. But Yavlinsky said it was still possible that “Yabloko might have a common candidate with other democratic forces, and it would be just great if this happened.”
Kasparov argues that, despite polls showing much greater support for potential Kremlin-endorsed successors, it is conceivable that an opposition candidate could end up winning in March. This is possible, he says, because Putin’s choice of a successor could trigger a backlash from whichever Kremlin factions see themselves as losers.
“The opposition is trying to make sure elections take place. That’s the No. 1 priority,” Kasparov said in an interview. “I mean elections — not a mockery, not a fake. Elections with debate, with some sort of publicity for opposition candidates, and elections with results that are not written and stamped beforehand.
Possible Kremlin split
If a truly open election campaign unfolds, “I think there’s a good chance that the Kremlin factions will split, because they hate each other more than the concept of democracy,” Kasparov said. “And they fear each other more than any of the opposition leaders.” Some analysts say that Kasyanov, as the former prime minister who presided over the government during what was widely seen as a successful first term for Putin, is well-positioned to draw support from Russia’s bureaucracy and political elite should Kremlin unity crack.
Other likely candidates include nationalist leader Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky and Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov. In a recent poll by the respected Levada Center, the potential Kremlin-backed candidates, Medvedev and Ivanov, were solidly out front of other possible contenders. Only 6% said they would vote for a liberal candidate supporting Western-style democracy, someone such as Kasyanov. Nevertheless, Other Russia is already having an effect by standing up to Putin and openly criticizing him, said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the Moscow-based For Human Rights organization. “Putin hates Other Russia because they are the only ones who come out into the streets and loudly say anti-Putin slogans,” Ponomaryov said. “Their main slogan is ‘Russia without Putin,’ and they keep repeating it publicly time and again.”
At the April march, Kasparov’s group gained helpful publicity when Russian and foreign media reported on police beating protesters. But at the conclusion of the mid-June rally, Kasparov noted the extremely heavy police presence and told protesters to simply go home rather than try to stage another unsanctioned march. Russia’s real political battle, he implied, will begin this autumn, when the presidential campaign begins in earnest. “It’s not our defeat,” he declared. “It’s our necessary preparation for this fall. This fall, they will run away, because fear is entering their hearts.”