Russia: Oppositionists Ponder Putin's Legacy

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

In recent months, Russian protests have taken several unexpected and unprecedented turns. The movement ushered in the year peacefully with ‘White Ribbon’ protests (the symbol of the opposition) and an effort to gather a million people to rally against the inauguration of Russia's new (and old) President, Vladimir Putin.

The ‘Million Man March,’ however, ended in violence between riot police and demonstrators, and the opposition remains fractured and troubled by leadership uncertainties, united only by a collective negativity towards Putin's third term, specifically, and his entire regime, more generally. The violence and mass arrests during the ‘Million Man March’ have only further complicated the situation.

Meanwhile, Putin is again Russia's president, having returned to the Kremlin on inaugural day down empty streets, blocked off by police, in vivid contrast to many other democracies. (Images circulated the RuNet comparing Barack Obama's inaugural day crowds in Washington, DC, to the ‘ghost-town’ appearance of Moscow on May 7, 2012.)

Was this evidence that Putin feared his own people? Was it a security tactic gone overboard? These and other questions electrified bloggers for weeks to follow.

Election Protests in Moscow, Sakharov Prospect (24 Dec 2011), photo by Sime Simon, CC 2.0.

Andrey Loshak, a prominent Russian journalist, argued [ru] on that governments protect their sacredness when their societies are excluded from ‘modern trends.’ He cites North Korea's ‘Intranet’ as a good example: a network only available to political elites, while the rest of the population lacks nearly any connection to the outside world, almost totally deprived of uncensored information.

In this framework, it is possible to maintain a dictatorial regime and a leadership cult for a long period of time. Russia, however, cannot stay in a vacuum for very long, and Russian society is already far more globally integrated than North Korea's.

Loshak claims that Putin is blamed for nearly all the country's problems. Bloggers and activists, he explains, accuse Putin of arresting the leaders of the provocative punk rock band ‘Pussy Riot,’ of creating a pro-government television regime, and of arresting the opposition's leaders and various businessmen.

Loshak believes that Putin's strength has become his curse: the ‘national leader’ for over a decade, having claimed credit for all the nation's accomplishments, Putin will now be blamed equally for all Russia's failures.

Other observers have tried to parse questions of blame in their analyses of the Million Man March. Popular blogger Rustem Adagamov believes [ru] that responsibility for the violence on May 6 does not belong exclusively to the police. Organizers escalated the conflict, he suggests, and law enforcement officers responded.

Political scientist Aleksandr Morozov faults [ru] a combination of arrogance on the part of the authorities and the aggressive attitude of police chiefs on the ground. Indeed, there are various videos online that show how riot police attacked protesters. For many, it remains unclear why the government used such heavy-handed measures, which potentially escalated the conflict. Past weeks have demonstrated that protesters do not seem to be going anywhere. The police remove demonstrators from one park, but they simply occupy another.

Famous writer and active RuNet presence Boris Akunin offered [ru] three scenarios for Putin’s third term:

  1. Putin will stay for two terms — until 2024 — letting someone else keep his chair warm, and return again in 2030, and so on, until his health fails (and he is a strong man). […]
  2. Putin will barely serve out his current term, and will then retire, either not daring to run again (due to the low ratings) or losing in the 2018 election.
  3. Putin will not be able to hold out until the end of his current term. Growing dissatisfaction, allegations of illegitimacy, and the self-destruction of the “power vertical structure” will force him to resign early. (The current escalation of police brutality increases the likelihood of this outcome).

Reflecting on such gloomy prognoses for Putin, blogger Dmitry Kraiukhin accuses [ru] Russian society of being delusional. He notes that several years ago (after soccer fans rioted at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow), people tended to believe that nationalists were the only true oppositionist force in Russia. Many entertained the hope that a prominent Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov, could become a new liberal leader. “Then there was the illusion that the Kremlin is ready for a dialogue with the most moderate oppositionists.”

For Kraiukhin, and presumably many others like him, reality has failed to meet expectations every time.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

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