Revolutionary fervour is hard to come by in Moscow these days. If one drops by the Jean-Jacques café or Mayak, once unofficial headquarters of the protest movement, a visibly shrunken group of activists and media types is discussing whether ‘the revolution’ died with Vladimir Putin’s victory in the March 4 presidential elections, the enthusiastic expressions gone from their faces.
This is not the case with the faces of portfolio investors in Russia. They are smiling as they anticipate Putin’s triumphant return to the Kremlin in May. The consensus is that Putin’s third term will mean more ‘business as usual’ – albeit with a slightly different composition of government.
Both the activists and the investors are wrong. Russia has changed irreversibly and the question is only how long and how smooth the decline of the current political regime will be.
Events unfolding since the massively rigged State Duma elections brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of Moscow are a classic example of a legitimacy crisis. This became palpable after the September 24, 2011, announcement that Vladimir Putin was planning to return to the presidency. I remember very distinctly how the ‘Is Uruguay still taking immigrants?’ mood soon gave way to an ‘It’s our country!’ sentiment.
When Putin was publicly humiliated for the first time by the audience’s booing at a martial arts match last November, Alexei Navalny, the blogger turned anti-corruption crusader, wrote in his online diary: ‘This is the beginning of the end’. This happened three weeks before the first in a series of rallies, held at Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, made headlines around the world. I think Navalny’s remark is still true.
Although there will be fewer rallies, the reasons that led to them in the first place have not disappeared. Putin is still facing the growing discontent of the people I’d prefer to call the ‘independent class’, rather than the ‘middle class’ referred to by the western media. They are mostly city professionals aged between 20 and 50 who have learnt to live in the new, sometimes harsh conditions of Russia’s capitalism. They are used to making independent decisions regarding their private lives, their professional careers, their lifestyle and consumer choices. They do not need a benevolent but strict father figure in the Kremlin to ‘stabilise’ the country for them. They are just fine stabilising their lives themselves. What they do lack is the ability – though not the formal right – to make a free political choice.
Not all of us are on the take
Curiously, many of these ‘independents’ are not private entrepreneurs or bohemians, but civil servants sick of the corrution of the Putin system. An acquaintance, the deputy head of a department in the Moscow Mayor’s Office, told me he was stunned to see his colleagues go to opposition gatherings en masse. ‘Not all of us are on the take,’ he said. ‘We have eyes and ears and are as disgusted as everyone else. Many of us want to make careers in a normal, transparent fashion. It’s our fight too.’
The problem the Kremlin faces is that it cannot use either bribery or intimidation to quell this mood. Bribery won’t work because the demands of the protesters are not economic. And intimidation doesn’t allow much scope because fear is gone from Russian society. Only an Alexander Lukashenko-style wave of repressions could buck the trend. For this the Kremlin has neither the resources nor the stomach.
Count on forgiveness
While the opposition doesn’t appear to have one leader whom everyone would support, in fact it has. Mikhail Khodorkovsky , the jailed former tycoon, is the only public figure in Russia who has the sympathies of both westernising, Right-leaning liberals and the gradually evolving and modernising Left. For the former, he is the icon of Russian capitalism and a relentless critic of Putin; for the latter, he is the only Russian oligarch who, through his long stint in prison, has redeemed the real and perceived sins of Russia’s controversial privatisation of the 1990s.
More importantly, Khodorkovsky is consistently challenging the Kremlin on moral grounds, decrying the cynicism and the mistrust of value-based politics that the Putin era has brought with it. This is something that opposition supporters clearly identify with. It may seem like a long shot, but the former billionnaire is the closest example Russia has to a Nelson Mandela or a Vaclav Havel. His Dostoevskian plight is so Russian in style that I can almost visualise him walking through the Kremlin gates.
Khodorkovsky himself has chosen a different novel as a reference for his situation – Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, whose hero is falsely imprisoned, escapes and takes vengeance on his persecutors. With his now famous statement ‘I am no Count of Monte Cristo, I will not seek revenge’, Khodorkovsky may eventually provide the best opportunity for Russia’s current leaders to make a graceful exit.