When authoritarian leaders face protests over ‘stolen’ elections, there are usually two possible responses. They can bargain with the protestors, hoping to retain power by delivering concessions. Or they can crack down on dissent, dispersing protests, jailing ringleaders and stifling communications. The Russian leadership, in keeping with its smoke-and-mirrors system of ‘virtual democracy’, is trying both at once.
With presidential elections due in March 2012, the public tone of Russia’s ruling elite is conspicuously conciliatory towards opposition movements. The Kremlin’s infamous political strategist, Vladimir Surkov, has hailed mass protests as ‘absolutely natural’. The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, today submitted draft bills to parliament proposing wide-reaching political reforms, including the return of direct gubernatorial elections and an easing of hurdles for political party registration. At least seven candidates will compete in March’s presidential election.
Yet behind the scenes, opposition movements are far from basking in the Kremlin’s good will. Private telephone calls of opposition leaders have been tapped, and disparaging comments made by Boris Nemtsov (co-leader of the Party of People’s Freedom) about fellow oppositionists were published. The leader of the Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov, received a five-day jail sentence for alleged jaywalking. As soon as his term was up, he received a further sentence for misbehaviour during his previous arrest. The editor of a prominent Russian news magazine was fired after publishing a photograph of a ballot paper cast in favour of the opposition Yabloko party with the words ‘Putin Fuck Off’ scrawled across it.
The next three months will be pivotal for Russian politics. Either private repressions will anger opponents of the Kremlin, reminding them of their common cause. Or the Kremlin’s divide and conquer tactics will work, with some Russians bought off with promised tax cuts, others placated by long-term promises of political reforms, and the remaining hard-core opponents ground down by repression. The Russian leadership is clearly banking on the latter to deliver the presidency safely back to Putin next March.