Outlook bright for President Putin at outset of third term
ANALYSIS:THE POWER swap in which Vladimir Putin became president on Monday and Dmitriy Medvedev prime minister a day later was marked by a toughening of stances on the streets of Moscow by the police and also by some of the anti-government demonstrators.
Stability in the capital appears more fragile as Putin takes office for the third time in the Kremlin – and Medvedev moves into more vulnerable territory.
There is a lesson that every politician should learn: “At a major event, always act as if you are on camera.” The rule was broken on Monday in the splendour of the Grand Kremlin Palace towards the end of Putin’s inauguration speech when he told his listeners firmly that Russia was a country whose democracy would be strengthened.
Just by chance, the cameras were on former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev as Putin made this remark. Gorbachev reacted negatively. One could see that he did not agree. One could also see that he said something monosyllabic.
Gorbachev’s response was probably the most mildly critical reaction to the start of Putin’s third term as president. Others took to the streets and were beaten back by police who acted far more aggressively than they had done during the huge demonstrations after the parliamentary elections last December and during the presidential campaign in March.
Perhaps the most sinister action by the authorities took place at the Jean-Jacques Café on Nikitsky Boulevard in the city centre, a place frequented by journalists and some of the more moderate opponents of the authorities.
People were dragged from their tables and unceremoniously dumped into police vans. Their only “offence” was the wearing of the white ribbons of the opposition.
But if the police had changed their attitude, so too had some of the anti-government demonstrators.
Websites such as grani.ru, regarded as anti-government, not only showed how violent the police were, they also revealed that a different type of demonstrator had arrived on the scene.
Some of them were masked. One young man in a light-blue balaclava was particularly provocative in his actions. Some used sticks to beat the police, and at the end of Sunday’s demonstration on Bolotnaya Ploshchad in central Moscow, others upended portable toilets and shoved them in the direction of police, their contents spewing from them.
These actions provided a very stark contrast to smiling crowds at previous demonstrations I attended in Moscow earlier this year. The atmosphere was usually one of good-humoured banter, and most of those I spoke to made it clear they would continue to protest provided everything was kept within the law.
But there are fringe groups from the far left and far right who seek the publicity that stems from being arrested in a country where spontaneous protests are illegal. Everything about protests is supposed to be agreed in advance, including the venue, time and the numbers expected to attend.
The police then set up metal detectors, and certain facilities are laid on for the attendance – hence the presence of the portable toilets at Bolotnaya Ploshchad.
Sergei Udaltsov on the left and Alexei Navalny on the right have pursued a more militant course that has led to a widening fissure between them and the moderate anti-Putin protesters. This has also contributed to the marked decrease in numbers at demonstrations since the huge rally on December 24th last year.
The description of the pro-Putin party United Russia as “the Party of Crooks and Thieves” was coined by Navalny, and it is to the leadership of this organisation that former president Medvedev has now moved.
Usually regarded as more moderate in his views than Putin, Medvedev lost a great deal of credibility when he announced last September that he would cede the presidency to his predecessor. His new role as prime minister and leader of United Russia may erode that credibility even further, and rumours persist that his prime ministership may not last long.
In Putin’s case, the outlook seems brighter. As Russia’s first citizen he has declared himself to be above politics, and has broken links with what opponents perceive as the Crooks and Thieves. He still faces street protests, but these are diminishing. He can look at the economic crisis to the West from the comfortable position of an economy that appears sound –as long as the price of oil remains high.
If there is one thing that may upset him, it is that his control of the broadcast media, with some small exceptions, is increasingly being challenged on a worldwide web that is dominated by his opponents.
Any move to clamp down on the internet will be strongly opposed by the West and could lead to tensions. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe would be at the forefront of opposition to such moves, and its presidency is currently held by Ireland.
Séamus Martin is a retired international editor and Moscow correspondent of The Irish Times