The Kremlin is trying some typically shadowy, sly moves to quell the Russian protest movement, but in Alexey Navalny the opposition may have a tactician who can outplay Putin at his own game.
After an unexpected 50,000 demonstrators turned out in Moscow on 10 December to protest against electoral fraud, Mikhail Prokhorov, a flamboyant oligarch, said he supported the protests and would run for president in March. Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets and Snob magazine, and was arrested a few years ago at a French ski resort on suspicion of pimping (though later released without charge), will be an easy target for Putin’s anti-oligarch rhetoric. It seems a classic Kremlin ruse: push forward an opposition candidate so absurd it only strengthens Putin.
Putin’s former finance minister, Alexey Kudrin, has also backed the protests. Kudrin resigned from the government in September, inviting speculation that this was part of a Kremlin plan to create a credible but ultimately loyal opposition figure. Kudrin has a reputation both in Russia and abroad as a competent finance minister who is genuinely pro-reform. Were he to run against Putin it could create enough distraction to take the sting out of the protests.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has had to sacrifice its first serious piece: Vladislav Surkov, the grey cardinal behind Putin’s system of pseudo-democracy, has been stripped of responsibility for home affairs. The problem is, those replacing him could be a much nastier lot. Hardline KGB loyalists are being moved into key positions: if a bloody crackdown is needed, the Praetorian guard is in place.
The Kremlin’s main problem, however, is that Putin himself is behaving erratically. ‘I thought they were protesting against Aids,’ he said on TV after the protests on 16 December. ‘Their white ribbons looked like condoms.’ He alleged that ‘some of the protesters were paid – well, I’m not against students making a bit of money.’ Elsewhere, he claimed that Hillary Clinton had instigated the protests.
The sneering backfired. On 24 December, an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets, unprecedented for 21st-century Russia. ‘Hillary Clinton phoned me up this morning and said she’d give me a fiver if I came,’ one of the protesters, laughing, told the TV cameras. One banner read: ‘Putin, I can hate you for free, I don’t need to get paid.’ People brought blown-up condoms, or even dressed up as giant condoms. ‘I’d wear a condom if it protected me from you,’ a placard said.
But the protesters have problems of their own, which the Kremlin has been doing its best to exploit. They are an uneasy coalition of nationalists, hipsters and others. Many of the speakers on 24 December found themselves heckled by one group or another. Then the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny took to the stage, and struck a pose straight out of a Soviet revolutionary poster. ‘I see we’re here, but where is that lad who smirked at us from the box? Is he here? Well – where is he?’ Navalny growled, to roars from the crowd. ‘We know who they are, they are small, cowardly jackals... This is addressed to the two lads’ – Putin and Medvedev – ‘huddling in their office: your Botox won’t keep you warm!’
This wasn’t mere braggadocio, but part of a sustained strategy by Navalny to knock down Putin’s key positions. First, through his anti-corruption work, Navalny has shown that the Putin elite are enriching themselves in the same manner as the 1990s oligarchs, thus besmirching Putin’s image as a folk champion taking on the evil rich. Then, by siding with grassroots nationalist movements, Navalny chipped away at Putin’s second strength, his much avowed patriotism. Now in this speech, Navalny was attacking hard-pecs Putin’s carefully cultivated tough guy reputation. Throughout the speech Navalny chanted ‘All for One and One for All’, which all 100,000 protesters happily joined in with. The Three Musketeers is one of Russians’ favorite Soviet-era films: Navalny was enmeshing himself in a set of sentimental, nostalgic cultural markers, exactly the space the Putinoids have been trying to colonise over the past decade.
‘I see enough people here to storm the Kremlin today,’ Navalny said, ‘but we are peaceful – for now!’ This was not the speech of an ‘anti-corruption blogger’. This was the speech of a very ambitious politician: the first important Russian political figure to emerge since the advent of the Putin era. But some liberals, already queasy at his nationalism, were alarmed by Navalny’s speech. ‘This was a speech that was more befitting of a Mussolini than a democrat,’ someone wrote on the Facebook thread of a well-known opposition film-maker. ‘Yes,’ someone else replied, ‘but maybe we need people like that to start a revolution.’