Russia is caught in a dangerously status quo, says a leading analyst. The system cannot be changed from above, but the opposition lacks the strength to force change from below.
According to the Levada Center’s Denis Volkov, who has conducted surveys of opposition protesters, the consensus is: “The system will never change from the top. We do not have enough strength to force change. But Russia can’t go on like this.”
Potential scenarios are disturbing
“Pushing Russia into uncharted waters, a year of wholly unexpected political protest is sharpening tensions within both the society and the government itself,” The Washington Post’s Will Englund and Kathy Lally report. “No one understands how this will turn out, but no matter what happens, the Russia that existed in 2011 will not be seen again.”
As the Post reports: The big street demonstrations that suddenly began last December seemingly accomplished little concrete change, and the Kremlin is still fully in control of parliament, police and courts — and unbashful about deploying them against its foes.
Yet the past 12 months have shown for the first time here how people can organize themselves to take action and demonstrate broad dissatisfaction with the government of President Vladimir Putin. The protests have pushed the president into a reactive posture and given the protesters an unfamiliar sense of solidarity.
“It’s growing from the bottom up,” said Grigory Okhotin, a statistician who has been analyzing the demonstrations. “We’ve never seen this before.”
“As a result,” The New York Times reports, “the National Democratic Institute, an American-financed organization that promotes democracy, moved to Lithuania last month, and its counterpart, the International Republican Institute, is likely to follow.”
The offices of two prominent NGOs – For Human Rights and Memorial – were recently spray-painted with the words “foreign agent” on the day the NGO law came into force.
Both groups intend to boycott the law.
“We will not follow this law, it is unlawful,” For Human Rights director Lev Ponomaryov (right) told Reuters:
Ponomaryov said he did not know who had sprayed the door [with the words "foreign agent" and a heart with "USA" next to it] but that the law was a scare tactic to try to restrict the operations of organizations like his.
“We have to show some sort of civil disobedience. They are threatening us and if they apply some sort of repressions to us, we will try to make our case in courts,” he said.
The regime has conducted a campaign of selective, targeted repression against key opposition activists, the Post reports:
- anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny has been charged with bribery and left-wing activist Sergei Udaltsov charged with plotting mass disorder;
- opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev accused the secret services of abducting him in Ukraine, where he sought asylum;
- former KGB agent Gennady Gudkov was stripped of his parliamentary seat after he supported the protesters, while another former KGB operative Alexander Lebedev was charged with hooliganism;
- members of the punk band Pussy Riot were imprisoned for two years on the same charge performing an anti-Putin song in an Orthodox church.
The authorities are also petitioning to ban a new book on human rights abuses in Chechnya as “extremist.” The case reflects the growing misuse of anti-extremism legislation against civil society activists, says a leading human rights group.
On December 6, 2012, the Dzerzhinsk City Court in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia will hold a hearing on a petition filed by the local prosecutor’s office to ban a book by Stanislav Dmitrievsky (above), et. al., International Tribunal for Chechnya. Prospects of Bringing to Justice Individuals Suspected of War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity During the Armed Conflict in the Chechen Republic. The 1,200-page book (left) was published in July 2009 with a print-run of 700 copies and made available to broader audiences on the website of Novaya Gazeta, a leading independent newspaper.
“Dmitrievsky’s book is based on meticulous desk research and is an important source of information on the Chechen conflict,” said Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities’ efforts to ban the book as ‘extremist’ have no basis in international human rights law and seem aimed at punishing Dmitrievsky for his human rights work.”
“In recent days, Moscow officials denied permission for a rally protesting political repression on the Soviet-like reasoning that the Russian Constitution prohibits such repression, and therefore it cannot exist,” the Post reports:
Putin used to portray himself as the leader of all Russians, above the party fray. But now the Kremlin is driving a wedge into society, demonizing the opposition, dividing Russians between “ours” and “not ours.” That strategy, though, has driven the three strands of the protest movement — leftists, nationalists and liberals – closer together, when many expected a rupture, said Sergei Davidis of a group called Solidarity.
Protesters who met at the big rallies have banded together to collect clothes for the homeless, to defend exploited immigrant workers who have been forced into servitude, to organize a children’s hospice, to play a role in relief efforts for flood victims. This is nearly unprecedented, Davidis said, and in some cases these actions have forced the authorities’ hand.
“A year ago, every activist had his own cop watching him,” says one activist. “They can’t do that anymore.”
NDI and IRI are two of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.