MOSCOW, December 10 (RIA Novosti, Alexandra Odynova) – Amid last year’s large-scale opposition protests in Moscow, Russian leader Vladimir Putin jokingly compared himself to the powerful python Kaa from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”
Since then, Kremlin critics have certainly felt a squeeze, with authorities employing anti-opposition tactics that have ranged from counter-rallies and media campaigns to tough new legislation and criminal cases, all while capitalizing on differences among Russian social groups.
Putin, who returned to the presidency in May after four years as prime minister, said Monday that the opposition movement has lost steam not due to “a tightening of the screws,” but because no one in Russia “wants a revolution.”
Analysts note that, over the past year, such appeals to stability and “traditional” values – including religiosity, admiration for the working class and a fear of outsiders – formed a cornerstone of the authorities’ response to the opposition and have helped keep Putin and his allies in power.
“It was a conservative strategy under the banner of stability,” Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center of Political Technologies, told RIA Novosti.
Though government actions have been just one reason for anti-Kremlin activists’ failure to consolidate, the opposition has clearly been losing momentum: Turnout at rallies has shrunk considerably; several prominent opposition leaders have been cowed by criminal investigations; and Putin’s ratings have not dropped by much if at all.
But observers note that the authorities’ victory has not been flawless: Public discontent, as Putin himself has acknowledged, persists, while tougher measures have emboldened some former protesters and fomented a split within the ruling elite.
From Counter-Protest to Intimidation
Last year, after allegations of massively rigged parliamentary elections spurred a wave of anti-Kremlin rallies in Moscow and several other large cities, one of the earliest official responses was a series of counter-rallies. Demonstrators – sometimes workers of state-controlled enterprises bussed in for the occasion – proclaimed their support for Putin and the ruling United Russia party.
They praised the stability and growing prosperity characteristically associated with Putin’s rule and emphasized the distinction between the liberal, tech-savvy opposition and a more conservative Russian heartland.
One particularly vocal factory worker, Igor Kholmanskikh, was appointed by Putin to a senior government post.
The government did not give in to opposition demands for a revote and United Russia took its majority of seats in the State Duma, despite numerous documented violations.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst and United Russia member, attributed the government’s success in its stand-off with the opposition to its uncompromising position.
“The authorities have been firm in holding onto the reins of power and they succeeded,” he said in an interview.
After Putin won the presidential election in March, government tactics got even tougher, focusing on criminal prosecutions and laws described by critics as repressive.
One of the opposition’s most charismatic leaders, anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, has been charged with embezzlement in a previously closed case dating back to 2009, when he was a pro bono advisor to Kirov Region Governor Nikita Belykh.
Separately, at least 17 protesters have been charged over a May 6 opposition rally that ended in clashes with police, with several injured on both sides. One of those charged, Maksim Luzyanin, 36, was sentenced last month to four and a half years in prison for taking part in mass riots and violence against police officers.
The cases have been split up, avoiding a single high-profile trial with crowded courtrooms and intense media coverage.
Following the May 6 rally, United Russia deputies introduced a law toughening punishment for violations during mass rallies, increasing maximum fines from several thousand rubles to 600,000 ($19,400) for officials, 300,000 ($9,700) for individuals and 1 million rubles ($32,400) for legal entities.
Moreover, since March, state-controlled television channels have broadcast a series of documentaries implicating opposition activists in unsavory activities. The most recent, released in October, accused several of them of plotting a coup with help from abroad.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened criminal cases based on the films, targeting leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, of the opposition Left Front movement, as a key suspect.
Another Left Front activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, has said he was kidnapped and later tortured by masked men after trying to apply for political asylum in Kiev in October. He has been jailed and accused of organizing mass riots aimed at overthrowing the government together with Udaltsov. Authorities deny he was abused in any way.
Markov, the pro-Kremlin analyst, said the opposition was “discredited in the documentaries,” which was part of the government’s strategy.
Another high-profile case that saw the state use an us-and-them approach – similar to the one highlighting differences between Moscow’s middle-class protesters and the working class – was the trial of the political punk band Pussy Riot, which captured international headlines earlier this year.
The court would not acknowledge the band’s brief “punk prayer” inside Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral as political, despite its call for Putin to step down, but defined it as offensive to religious believers. This, too, Makarkin said, emphasized the rockers’ deviation from commonly accepted behavior and religious values.
A fear of “the other” likewise lay at the heart of a new law, introduced after the protests, obliging foreign-funded NGOs involved in activities that could be considered political to register as “foreign agents”, a term associated since Soviet times with spies.
The initiative came on the heels of Putin’s statement last December that the United States stood behind the protests – a claim that has been reiterated by Russian officials and denied by Washington.
The law came into effect last month, though without all the necessary mechanisms for implementation, and has been boycotted by many prominent NGOs.
Policy of Distraction
One seeming concession by the Kremlin was the introduction of legislation that made it easier to register a political party. Markov of United Russia, however, said the measure was good for authorities because Russia’s motley opposition got distracted registering dozens of parties instead of forming a new agenda for the whole movement.
Opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov conceded that the government’s tactics had strengthened its position and stymied the opposition’s efforts to consolidate its leadership.
In the past several weeks, the state has also embraced one of the opposition’s most popular goals: exposing corrupt government officials, with investigators opening a string of cases involving senior state officials in the Defense Ministry and the space industry.
Driving a Wedge in the Elite?
Some observers believe harsh measures against the opposition have had unexpected side effects, stirring up a conflict within the ruling elite and emboldening a small core of activists.
Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada Center, a respected independent pollster, noted that the crackdown has inspired some protesters to hit the streets despite potential consequences.
Meanwhile, Ponomaryov, the Duma deputy, said the recent wave of arrests and prosecutions have pushed a minority of opposition supporters to think more radically.
At the same time, he said, “the Kremlin is fueling a split” between elites with its uncompromising policy, with some factions supporting the tough approach and others calling for dialogue.
“Putin’s ‘power vertical’ is in decline as groups within the Kremlin are increasingly waging their own games,” said Mikhail Dmitriyev, head of the Center for Strategic Research think tank, of the intimidation tactics.
“The government also needs to enter into a dialogue with the public and give the people more power to influence the authorities,” he said.
United Russia’s Markov believes that if the government’s current steps don’t rein in the opposition, “tougher measures will follow.”
But Volkov, the sociologist, said authorities’ actions — while not the primary reason the opposition is running out of steam – could trigger a new round of protest in the future.
“People had been concentrating a lot of discontent for a long time, and they poured those emotions out and calmed down,” said Volkov, who has been researching the year-long protests.
But the system hasn’t changed, he added, so discontent has lingered.
As the state gets tougher, he said, “it might happen that a new protest will take longer to accumulate, but will be harder to manage later, though it’s not clear when.”