“After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there’s nobody left to talk to,” Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin sarcastically joked five years ago commenting on the violations of human rights and freedoms in the West. The Kremlin’s reaction to recent peaceful protests in Moscow has recalled Mr. Putin’s remark.
“It seems that Gandhi has come back to haunt Putin,” the daily Vedomosti said. Indeed, it may be no exaggeration to say the anti-Putin protests that began in December with mass rallies and demonstrations against Mr. Putin’s return as President are increasingly reminiscent of Gandhi’s satyagraha against the British Raj.
Russian protesters have been on the streets and setting up Occupy-type camps in the Russian capital, dispersing at the first police order and offering no resistance when detained. Writers and artists have organised peaceful “strolls” along Moscow boulevards in support of the protests.
“Gandhi successfully used nonviolent resistance to drive the British out of India,” the newspaper noted.
The protesters say they want to transform Russia’s authoritarian political system into genuine democracy. Their demands include enacting new electoral legislation to ensure “fair, transparent and competitive elections,” and having new parliamentary and presidential polls as the election to the Duma in December and for President in March were marred by charges of large-scale falsification.
Initially, Mr. Putin not only welcomed the new civic activism, he also claimed credit for it.
“These changing demands on government, and the fact that the middle class is exiting the narrow world of increasing its own prosperity, are the results of our efforts. We have worked for that to happen,” he wrote in his presidential campaign manifesto.
But now the Russian leader refuses to talk to the opposition. When asked by journalists why the Kremlin was not initiating dialogue with the protesters, his reply was that opposition activists “do not have a common platform, so there is nobody to talk to.”
Indeed, the protests lack structure, programme or formal leaders. Driven by educated urban classes they have so far been largely confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg, but have gathered impressive momentum at least in the Russian capital. Half a dozen rallies and marches organised largely through the internet since December have each gathered tens of thousands of participants. Experts predict that the protest movement will only grow.
For the time being, though, opposition activists are a minority and Mr. Putin is trying to pit them against the majority that supported him in his presidential bid.
One of the first personnel decisions Mr. Putin made after taking office in May was to reward with high government office an engineer from a tank factory who had promised in December to bring his fellow workers to Moscow to help police deal with the protesters.
Mr. Putin appointed engineer Igor Kholmanskikh as the presidential envoy to the Urals Federal District, one of only seven such top regional posts in Russia. Thanking the man for his support Mr. Putin said that “Russian labourers, from factory workers to engineers” were the “real Russian people,” in contrast with “those idlers and blabbermouths” who demonstrated in Moscow.
“The Kremlin is working hard to widen the rift between the big cities and the provinces that came to the surface during the recent presidential election,” said political analyst Alexander Kynev.
The tactic is best illustrated by the trial of feminist punk rockers who chanted a “punk prayer” against Mr. Putin. Wearing brightly-coloured ski masks, the Pussy Riot group sang “Mother Mary, drive Putin away” inside Russia’s largest Orthodox cathedral in Moscow two weeks before the March vote that saw Mr. Putin regain the presidency for a third time.
Three band members, all in their 20s, have since been kept behind bars, and face up to seven years in jail on hooliganism charges. Their arrest and trial, which began last Friday, has deeply polarised Russian society.
While many intellectuals and residents of big cities came out against a “medieval witch hunt,” 70 per cent of Russians said the punk group had committed a punishable offence against the Russian Orthodox Church and an insult to all believers.
“Authorities are deliberately blowing the punk rockers case out of proportions in order to discredit the opposition and consolidate the conservative part of society,” wrote a Russian newspaper.
In a parallel strategy, after his re-instalment as President, Mr. Putin rushed through the Parliament a slew of laws designed to stifle the protest movement. The legislators have sharply increased up to $20,000 fines for unsanctioned rallies and demonstrations, required independent non-government organisations (NGOs) that receive any foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” made libel and slander of government officials a criminal offence, and given the government power to close down without a court order websites accused of hosting illegal content.
The laws signalled a radical departure from a pro-democracy course championed by the Kremlin when current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was President. It was shortly before stepping down from the top Kremlin job, that Mr. Medvedev decriminalised defamation. Six months later, however, he supported reclassifying it as a felony.
Analysts have suggested that the Kremlin may be deliberately provoking radicalisation of the protest movement in the hope that this will push away from it moderate supporters. This strategy may work on condition that the social situation in the country remains stable.
However, some experts warn that a wave of social protests that may rise in the provinces in the coming fall, when people feel the full impact of July’s 12 per cent hike in the price of household energy supplies and coming cuts in social spending dictated by the global economic slowdown.
If social unrest merges with the radicalised political dissent, Mr. Putin may regret refusing to talk to today’s Gandhian-style protesters.