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January 2012, Week 2

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Wed, 11 Jan 2012 21:30:52 -0500
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The Protesters' Lull Before the Storm

11 January 2012
By Boris Kagarlitsky
The Moscow Times

The global political crisis -- a natural outcome of the
continuing economic crisis -- finally made it to Russia in
December before getting derailed by the country's
traditional hibernation in early January. Nothing ever
happens in Russia between Dec. 31 and Jan. 13 -- and
particularly not a revolution. While the organizers of the
protest demonstrations headed for swanky resorts in Mexico
and other sunny spots, their grassroot supporters were
stuck in cold, dreary Russia. They retired to their
cramped apartments to drink vodka and discuss the
country's uncertain fate.

The two-week vacation turned out to be a gift for both the
authorities and the opposition. The authorities were quite
happy because the holiday brought a lull in the
opposition's passions and drained the protest movement of
the momentum it had only begun to build. And even though
Russians made a psychological shift from passivity to
active protest in December, that momentum will have to be
generated anew if the demonstrations are to resume in
early February as planned.

The holidays have also given the Kremlin time to reflect
and work out a strategy for handling future protests and
protesters' demands. Rather than altering policy, however,
leaders have focused on staffing changes.

President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a couple of political
reforms in December, but they would be implemented only in
early 2013. Thus, it is clear that Medvedev's proposals
are little more than an imitation of concessions to the
protesters.

Most disturbing of all, Russia may not have the luxury to
wait until 2013 to make even these cosmetic changes. The
looming recession and the possible failure of the euro
zone in the West could lead to falling oil prices and,
thus, serious economic and political consequences for
Russia.

The opposition is not in a much better situation. The
liberal politicians who set the tone for the Moscow
demonstrations understand that people responded to their
call only because they are fed up with the lies,
corruption and lawlessness of the government. Disgust with
the government by no means indicates that protesters have
a deep trust or admiration of the opposition leaders.
Recall how nearly half the speakers at the rally on
Prospekt Akademika Sakharova on Dec. 24 were met with
catcalls by various groups.

Moreover, the leaders of the opposition risk losing their
only trump card. Either the protesting masses will become
more radicalized, uncontrollable and prone to violence, or
the reverse will happen: They will grow tired, divided,
demoralized and increasingly difficult to mobilize. Either
outcome would be catastrophic for the liberals. Of course,
the authorities would prefer the latter scenario, but
there is no guarantee it will be the one to play out.

Both sides have an interest in reaching a mutual agreement
as soon as possible. The liberals must exact at least a
few concessions from the Kremlin before the next round of
demonstrations-- their only bargaining chip with the
authorities -- slip out from under their control. For its
part, the Kremlin would do better to reach agreement with
the opposition now than to face unpredictable and perhaps
violent protests later.

Several opposition figures leaked the information that
secret negotiations with the authorities began in
December. The question now is: What are the two sides
discussing and have they reached an agreement?

Despite calls for compromise from such disparate groups as
the business community and the Russian Orthodox Church, it
is not at all clear that the parties will manage to reach
an agreement. The opposition might demand a postponement
of the presidential election scheduled for March to allow
for real opposition candidates -- and not the soft ones who
were handpicked by Putin -- to be registered so they can
run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Note that
nobody is calling for the replacement of liberals within
the economic ministries who are themselves supporters of
former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and his economic
course.

The real problem is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. For the
ruling elite, Putin's additional six or 12-year hold on
power is their guarantee of stability, and they will not
sacrifice him to satisfy protesters.

As a result, the authorities and the opposition might find
themselves drawn into a new round of confrontation, and
neither side would be prepared for it.

The liberals have a sincere and deep desire to achieve
their goals peacefully, constitutionally and without a
revolution. But if they are guided by their fears, they
could very well push the situation toward an impasse in
which violence is the only option available.

------
Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of
Globalization Studies.

Read more:
http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/the-protesters-lull-before-the-storm/450875.html#ixzz1jCnOfwes
The Moscow Times

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