Putin opposition showing signs of disintegration


ANALYSIS:THE ARRESTS and subsequent speedy release of opposition leaders Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov and Ilya Yashin have opened fissures within the loose grouping that has been organising the massive street protests in Moscow and elsewhere since the disputed parliamentary elections in December.

The men were arrested because their actions ran contrary to the views of more moderate leaders within their organisation and the hand of president-elect Vladimir Putin may be strengthened as a result.

Putin’s poll of 63 per cent may be disputed but it does appear that he has considerable support, especially outside the great cities of Moscow and St Petersburg.

On Sunday night at his rally in Moscow’s Manezh Square, he appeared supremely confident. There was not the slightest sign that he felt weakened by the strength of the opposition and the cracks now appearing in the solidarity of the demonstrators may make him more confident still.

There have been indications that reforms may be on the way but their provenance has caused scepticism amongst the general public. Current president and future prime minister Dmitriy Medvedev, along with the ruling United Russia party, have indicated that changes may be made which would make future elections more open and accessible to a greater variety of political opinion. Medvedev has also ordered a review of the jail sentences of the imprisoned oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

Russians, though, with some justification, do not regard Medvedev or the Duma as being important sources of power in the country – for them state power stems only from Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. They have seen Medvedev hinting at liberal reforms in the past but have not seen them coming to fruition.

It is against this political background that the arrests of Navalny, Udaltsov and Yashin should be seen. They were not arrested because of heavy-handed policing or on orders from above. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the powers-that-be in Russia do not want this trio to achieve the status of political prisoners, hence their swift release. The three men were arrested because they went out of their way to be arrested for publicity purposes.

More moderate forces within the movement have already begun to display their severe disagreement with these tactics.

The legal background to demonstrations in Moscow is very different from that in Ireland. Agreement must be reached in advance between the demonstrators and the city authorities on the time, place, duration and size of any rally to be held in the capital.

The agreement for Monday night’s rally was that it would be held on Pushkin Square from 7pm to 9pm and that it would be attended by 10,000 people. The organisers estimated that twice that number had arrived and the police spoke of 14,000, but that “offence” is usually dealt with by a nominal fine.

Other breaches, however, are taken far more seriously and during Monday’s meeting it became obvious that a serious breach was in the offing. This came when Sergei Udaltsov of the Left Front, which supported communist presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov, announced that he was going to camp on the square until Putin was gone from power.

Pointedly, as soon as this announcement was made, Sergei Mitrokhin and Grigoriy Yavlinsky of the liberal pro-western Yabloko party were seen to leave the demonstration.

Yesterday Mitrokhin on his Twitter account wrote that the “adventurism of Udaltsov and company” would lead to future rallies being attended by fewer and fewer people.

Another leader, Yevgenia Chirikova, also made it clear that she too was not going to get involved in protests of a similar character to “Occupy Wall Street” and other events that have taken place in the West.

The strength of the opposition movement has been its ability to bring people of very different views together but that strength has also contained a built-in weakness that, when pressure was applied, might cause serious rifts to occur. Udaltsov is on the left, Navalny is right-wing, Yashin is neither.

It had always been a remarkable feature in the early days of opposition to Putin’s rule that Gary Kasparov, a pro-democracy Jewish former world chess champion, could team up with Eduard Limonov, an extreme right-wing anti- Semitic writer and politician. These men parted ways some time ago and it now seems possible that others may move in separate directions too.

There are other signs that the demonstrators may be losing steam. Numbers in recent events have been smaller than in the past but this is perhaps because the events have been more targeted. In any event, the biggest rallies should be looked at in the context of the size of the local population.

Moscow is Europe’s largest city, considerably larger, for example, than London or Paris.

This correspondent, in 1996, was at a series of demonstrations in Belgrade that had more than a few similarities to those in Moscow today. They were engendered by a perception that elections had been rigged. The state TV service was in the hands of the Milosevic regime and there was only one independent radio station and a handful of small-circulation publications that took the side of the demonstrators. The demonstrators, as in Moscow, represented a wide spectrum of political views.

But there the similarities end. Belgrade’s population is insignificant compared to Moscow’s, but in the face of a considerably more repressive regime, they managed to get 100,000 people on to the streets every day at lunchtime and as many again when night fell and the working day had ended.

Moscow’s demonstrators have matched this figure on a couple of occasions, but next Saturday’s event will be key in the sequence of rallies that have caused so much attention in Russia and abroad. It will take place against the background of yet another election whose legitimacy the demonstrators dispute.

It will need to be a large one if organisers wish to impress the authorities, but it will also need to be restrained and held within the legal restrictions agreed with the city authorities if it is to keep the fragile unity of its organisers intact.

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