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Kremlin Offers Minor Concessions To Protesters

  • Tom Balmforth

A protester holds up a picture of Vladimir Putin with the "No!" across it. As one observer notes, if the rallies are really about Putin's return to the presidency, they will only grow.

A protester holds up a picture of Vladimir Putin with the "No!" across it. As one observer notes, if the rallies are really about Putin's return to the presidency, they will only grow.

MOSCOW -- In the days since Russia witnessed what many have described as the largest antigovernment demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has made what appear to be a series of conciliatory gestures.

On December 10, as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest electoral fraud, state media surprised viewers by airing full, straightforward, and by most accounts fair coverage of the protests.

The next day, the Russian Orthodox Church, which is staunchly loyal to the Kremlin, called on the authorities to "adequately and honestly" address the opposition's demands, which include annulling the elections. Also on December 11, President Dmitry Medvedev posted a message on his Facebook page calling for an investigation into the fraud allegations.

On December 12, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a politician very close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, acknowledged the elections' shortfalls and hinted that he was prepared to help found a new, liberal, democratic party.

"This election has shown a deficit of political forces or structures that would defend liberal, democratic values. And this deficit has proven to be more acute than we could have imagined 12 or six months ago," Kudrin said.

"So today, one can say with certainty that this deficit is so significant and the demand for the creation of such a structure is so high that it will be created."

Kudrin added that there would be a "consolidation process among liberal and democratic forces" and that he was "ready to help" in that process.

Taken together, the moves suggest the Kremlin is trying to patch up ties with the disgruntled urban middle class that fueled the protests and is planning to take to the streets again on December 24.

Later, State Duma speaker and leader of United Russia's Supreme Council Boris Gryzlov said the ruling party was ready to share executive posts in the lower house of parliament with opposition factions, according to Interfax.

A counterdemonstration organized by pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi meanwhile attracted hundreds of government supporters in the Russian capital on December 12.

WATCH: Kremlin sympathizers gathered in downtown Moscow on December 12 to show support for the government and the results of the recent elections:



Domestic And International Alarm

Analysts say the government's gestures may be too little too late -- especially since there is little indication the authorities are willing to even consider the opposition's more far-reaching demands, such as holding the December 4 parliamentary elections over again.

"It's clear that the authorities are still extremely uncomfortable with these mass protests and demands. They still haven't yet entirely formulated their reaction. There is still not a willingness to have high-ranking dialogue with the opposition," says Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Policy Fund.

"They're trying to draw things out and a lot is going to depend on the pattern the protests take," he adds. "Are they going to grow or shrink? If you take into account that the protest is not so much about the elections as about a section of society not wanting to see Vladimir Putin return to the presidency, then the protests will probably grow."

European Union officials suggest that they plan to raise the issue of the Russian elections in talks with Medvedev this week.

"We expect that in the course of the [EU-Russia] summit, when the two sides will discuss the latest developments, the issue of elections and what has happened will be raised," Maja Kocijancic, spokewoman for EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, said of the December 14-15 meetings in Brussels.

Kocijancic also said the EU "welcomed" Medvedev's decision to open an inquiry on the alleged electoral frauds.

"Any participant of the summit is free to raise any topic of interest," Russian EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov said on December 12. "So I am sure that my president will not be surprised if this [election issue] is mentioned by his EU counterparts."

Putin has been conspicuously quiet since the December 10 rallies and their aftermath. "We are hearing what is being said and we will continue to listen," his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has said.

Conciliatory Gestures

Medvedev's call for an investigation on Facebook, where he said he disagreed with the protesters' demands but that he had ordered an investigation into election fraud anyway, has failed to placate the opposition.

Longtime opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister, called the comments a "mockery." The opposition, which has applied for a permit to hold a 50,000-strong protest on December 24, is demanding the annulment of the elections and the scheduling of a new vote, the resignation of Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov, and legislative changes that would allow all parties to compete.

Nevertheless, the changed tone since December 10 has been striking. The state-run First Channel interviewed Nemtsov that day, for example, identifying him as an "opposition leader." It was the first time in years that Nemtsov was shown on television -- other than in cases when he was being hauled off by police.

Meanwhile, the nominally private NTV, which is owned by the state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom, devoted a five-minute report to the protests that stated the opposition's demands in full and interviewed participants. "The most important thing probably is that enough is enough," one of them said. "How much can people be cheated and taken for idiots?"

Boris Nemtsov was identified as an "opposition leader" on state TV.

Boris Nemtsov was identified as an "opposition leader" on state TV.

The report, however, edited out the crowd's chanting of antigovernment slogans like "Russia without Putin."

The Orthodox Church's decision to weigh in on the protests also raised eyebrows. Speaking to Interfax on December 11, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said the protesters "posed very serious questions that were uncomfortable for the authorities. We hope that the authorities will adequately and honestly answer them."

No Common Language

Kudrin's December 12 announcement, meanwhile, appeared to follow up on comments last week by deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov in which he said Russia needed a liberal political party to channel the anxiety and aspirations of the urban middle class.

It's unclear, however, whether the protesters will be placated by what appears to be a Kremlin-controlled party -- even one catering to them. That, after all, was the idea behind the ill-fated project to have billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov head up the liberal Right Cause party -- a project that fell apart over conflicts between Prokhorov and Surkov.

Prokhorov, meanwhile, has announced that he plans to run in the March 2012 presidential election. It's unclear, however, whether Prokhorov, who is historically close to the Kremlin, is acting as a political foil for the authorities or whether he is truly embracing the opposition.

With events moving rapidly, analysts say unity among the elite is showing signs of breaking down as various factions begin to pursue their own agendas.

"Now that the situation has started to develop in a bad way for the authorities, I think that some segments of the ruling elite have gone out of control and are playing their own game," says Boris Shatilov, an analyst for the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessments. "If you assess what happened on the television stations and radio stations, you can see that the protesters actually had informational support."

Shatilov adds, however, that it is highly unlikely that the authorities and opposition can find a common language, because the opposition "has from the start issued tough demands that are unacceptable for the authorities. The authorities, of course, will maneuver and try to stifle people's political activity. I fear that political dialogue will not work out because the people who lead the opposition have nothing to lose and their goal is to destroy the regime and so they won't be able to find consensus."

with additional reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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