In Russia, It's Putin as Usual

Putin's presidential election win means more of the same: recycling politicians, denial of voting irregularities, and the seemingly never-ending opposition protests.

1. "We were forced to come to the rally, but we do support Putin"

This week, there was one ironic sign on one of the streets of Moscow. It was an official one - reminding people that March 4 is Election Day for the Russian presidency. Someone glued Vladimir Putin’s name in big printed letters to the sign. And the result? "March 4th, elections of President of Russia Vladimir Putin". That is how it was perceived in Russia and pretty much elsewhere. And while the Russian government sticks to business as usual (the day after the elections the Russian Deputy Foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian to declare Tehran and Moscow's support for reforms in Syria etc), on the frozen streets of Moscow, nobody really talks about Iran or Syria.

Russia protest - Drugoi - March 2012

Sunday night, at the president-elect Putin's rally near Kremlin (where he shed a tear), I heard from his supporters plenty of conspiracy theories explaining the recent protests demanding fair elections which allowed all candidates able to run, and with state media providing fair share of coverage to others. It's the Department of State which pays them to stir the unrest because they are "not interested in strong Russia", say several men in their forties. Apparently, they were brought to Moscow from as far as Barnaul (3620 kilometers from the capital). "I came to support our great president, and to see Moscow," says Ivan Matei. Dmitry Medvedev is still the President, I remind him. “Whatever,” he replies. It seems that even though Putin's inauguration is still over two months away, four years of a Dmitry Medvedev presidency were quickly forgotten.

It is ironic that Putin's supporters accuse the opposition of being "paid by the State Department", while many of them are in the least bit shy at all to tell the reporter they were "forced" to come. "In principle, I do support Putin because we know him and we want stability", says Tatayana, a woman in a fur coat and pony tail. "But I am not sure I would have come - it's too cold, and we have to work on Monday. They told us at work, to come. Luckily, we live in Domodedovo, a half an hour drive from Moscow. Many others came from far away."

2. Botox tears

It is Tuesday's big opposition protest at Pushkunskaya square. It is freezing and the mood is less excited than in previous rallies. Some people still put on the white ribbons (the symbol of the protests), and some hold white flowers. There is still a motley crew of party members, activists and concerned citizens. There are young nationalists covering their faces with scarves, chanting: "Great Russia! One for all, all for one!" and throwing their arms up in a salute. There are LGBT activists and "Yabloko" party activists, whose candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, was barred from running. And plenty of signs - some creative, some so offensive that one of the speakers sort of apologizes for the tough words: "They brought the Russian intelligentsia to this." One sign compares Putin to a parasite, the other to a stink bug. On stage, words are no less harsh. Garry Kasparov, former World Chess Champion and veteran opposition leader, does not mince words. He says Putin's tear "wasn't a tear, but Botox spilling because he is melting from the heat of our hearts and our demands." The crowd laughs, and the speakers promise to return to the streets again and again until Putin is "out of Kremlin and in jail." One of the opposition leaders, Sergey Udaltsov, proclaims that he is going to stay on this very square until Putin is out. But the wind is unbearable, and standing here you cannot feel your frozen legs. So when the rally is over, most of the 20 thousand strong crowd hurry to the Metro. Several hundreds surround the frozen fountain, where Udaltsov promised to stay until Putin goes. Had the special forces waited quietly for an hour or two - the temperature would have forced them to abandon the place. But the policemen are cold and impatient, so they start dispersing protesters by force, arresting about 250 including several rally leaders. They are freed only later into the night, with the authorities threatening to bring them to justice for violations. The opposition promises to return to the streets for another mass protest on March 10th.

3. "Even people close to Putin are sending signals that they could work for the next regime"

One of the protest organizers, editor and publisher Sergey Parkhomenko, tells Haaretz that this rally will be different - the observers will discuss the election falsifications with the crowd. I remind him that Putin's supporters dismiss this, saying that he'd get a majority even if one takes into account the fraud and kicking the observers out of polling stations. "Well, it is like saying "It was okay to rape the girl - I didn't kill her after all." Parkhomenko says bluntly, "I am sure Putin would win the second round had he lost in the first one, but he wanted an easy win, a paid victory and he got it. Now we will submit the bill for this victory. I think it will ruin his political reputation that he still retains in certain circles."

He is concerned there might be more strangling of the few independent outlets. "We have one radio, one newspaper, one magazine, several websites. They don't have much advertisement because nobody wants problems with Putin. But the protests proved that these uneven forces - the independent press still can give the government's propaganda machine a decent fight when it resonates with public's mood. I don't think Putin will leave in the next two months, but I don't think either he will hold on for 6 years as -president. We'll continue working on the municipal level, pushing for reelections in Duma. He is not the only one there, but he is a cornerstone of this system and he needs to be gone. The atmosphere has changed - many people still hold the same positions. But if two years ago they felt it was forever, today they have a feeling it might be over, and some send signals criticizing Putin."

He admits there are differences between the opposition leaders, but pressed by the constant presence of TV cameras, they were forced to work together whether they were communists, LGBT activists, nationalists or intelligentsia. "Three months ago, you couldn't imagine these people in the same room. Today they are on the same stage. Some prefer to jump into frozen fountain. Others think it causes more damage. But they are totally able to cooperate and deliver common messages."

4. A bad idea

No Russian revolution could happen without its own poets. The most prominent one is Dmitry Bykov, a prolific writer and journalist, most famous for his sharp satirical poems. But Tuesday evening, Bykov is grumpy, saying he has a feeling Western journalists are waiting for him to be killed or something of this sort.

"Maybe I will come to the next rally. Maybe not, if it won't be approve by the authorities", he says. "Escalating the protests is to talk with Putin in his language. He understands violence. But civil wars and revolutions never led to anything good in Russia. We shouldn't go there. We need to forget about Putin for a while, let him think he rules the world - and continue independently the hard work of building civil society from the grassroots. It's less exciting and attractive than flags, white ribbons and chanting. But that's how you build an alternative, not with clashes and being proud of what you did when the police sticks strike your head. The state won't give us the basic respect, so we don't need the state. We need to continue to consolidate the opposition, to stop whining about the gaps between the protesters. It's not the working class protests against spoiled mink fur protests. The new national idea needs to be: we don't have the luxury to deem any people obsolete. The dichotomy between Moscow that presumably doesn't like Putin and the rest of the country that adores him is a false one. In his conversation with workers of Nizhny Tagil factory Putin was surprised workers are "so smart." So let us surprise him again, because the Internet is penetrating the Russian province in record speed."

Bykov says he doesn't see Putin as personification of all evil in the country. "On the personal level, I actually would be really glad to have Putin as a neighbor. He is not an alcoholic, he is sports addict, he is one of those who will probably have spare accumulator for you. Medvedev - I am not sure."

5. For the West, Putin as usual.

Some Western politicians criticized the elections, as did some prominent U.S. figures, but the establishment seems to accept Putin exactly as it did for the last 12 years. The U.S. Department of State spokesperson Victoria Nuland congratulated the Russian people on the completion of the Presidential elections, and "looks forward to working with the president-elect after the results are certified and he is sworn in."

Konstantin Rykov, former Duma member from Putin's Unified Russia party and publisher and prominent pro-Kremlin blogger, says the opposition's efforts are "laughable," since "even if there were some irregularities, the independent organization's agree Putin got more than 50% of the vote, so he is totally legitimate. But some people decided in advance the results are invalid and defy the will of the majority of the Russian people."