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Nationalists Vs. Liberals: Old Schism Could Fracture Opposition Protest Movement

  • Tom Balmforth

Many of Russia's non-Russians may steer clear of any movement associated with the more extremist nationalist elements, observers say.

Many of Russia's non-Russians may steer clear of any movement associated with the more extremist nationalist elements, observers say.

MOSCOW -- Nail Nabiullin was ready to throw himself fully behind the anti-Kremlin protests set to sweep across dozens of Russian cities on December 10.

But Nabiullin, an ethnic Tatar from Kazan who leads the youth group Liberty, thought twice when he saw a post on a website organizing the rallies describing them as supporting a "great Russian nation."

"On the one hand, I support these demonstrations completely because the issues raised there are important for me," he told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.

"But on the other hand on their Internet page the organizers claim that they are for a 'great Russian nation.' I don't like the way they are speculating with the Russian national issue. So, I cannot go there [to the demonstrations]."

Ruslan Aysin, another Tatar youth leader, also says he will not attend the protests in Kazan. " We are not going out to the streets yet, because it is not clear if our interests will be protected," he says. "Also, there is no respected voice who could organize us. If there was, I'm sure people are ready to go and tell their demands"

On one hand, the dilemma Nabiullin and Aysin face is specific to Tatarstan, where sensitivity about Russification and Russian chauvinism runs deep. An estimated 2,000 protestors are nevertheless expected to rally in Kazan, one of an estimated 70 cities scheduled to hold demonstrations. Local websites organizing the rallies, meanwhile, have toned down rhetoric that could be seen as insensitive to ethnic minorities.

Underlying Tensions

But beyond Tatarstan, the controversy also points to a latent fissure in the protest movement that encompasses various strands in society -- including urbane Western-oriented liberals as well as Slavophile nationalist elements -- that are opposed to the regime of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

There's been little nationalist slant to the elections in Russia this week.

There's been little nationalist slant to the elections in Russia this week.

Thus far, nationalists have been scantly visible at the demonstrations that have roiled Moscow this week, although there have been groups of masked young toughs chanting slogans like "Russians Forward!" But despite the low profile, they are present -- both moderates and radicals -- in the growing and amorphous protest movement, according to Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the Sova Center, which monitors hate crimes in Russia.

Verkhovsky says there are clearly underlying tensions in the movement that is being organized organically via social-networking websites and is largely without leaders following the jailing of anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and Solidarity leader Ilya Yashin.

"There's no real disagreement at the moment because the protest movement is doing just one thing -- organizing a protest against falsification. There's nothing to argue about," Verkhovsky says. "But problems could arise if people start chanting slogans in crowds that are unacceptable to the majority. This is not just a problem for the nationalists, but for all radical political groups. It's certainly a question how the police are going to react to this."

This potential schism is encapsulated in Navalny, the man who appears to be emerging as one of the movement's key spiritual leaders. An attorney, Navalny made his name as an anticorruption crusader and coined the term "the party of thieves and swindlers" for the ruling United Russia. But he also has a nationalist streak and was one of the organizers of this year's Russian March, which attracts many chauvinistic elements.

"It is awkward. The thing is that Navalny has a strong anticorruption message and his activities are mostly about anticorruption and organizing people to combat corruption and [to] be antigovernment," says Masha Lipman is a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "Nationalists are nothing but nationalists, which makes them unpalatable for the liberal, Westernized...members of the crowd."

Playing The Chaos Card

The Kremlin, meanwhile, appears to be playing up the nationalist presence among the protestors. The state-run First Channel's flagship prime-time news broadcast, "Vesti," which for days had ignored the demonstrations, attempted in its broadcast on December 7 to taint the movement with a nationalist brush.

The protest was attended "not only by liberals, but also nationalists," the anchor gravely said, adding, "It is not difficult to find advice on how to train for fighting police, what to wear, what to take with you and how to prepare Molotov cocktails."

Is Aleksei Navalny a nationalist?

Is Aleksei Navalny a nationalist?

The broadcast then cut to an interview with journalist Vladimir Solovyov, clad in a black hooded jacket on a Moscow street.

"In Russia there is a culture of rebellion and this rebellion always ends in blood," Solovyov said. "There is no tradition of fighting for rights on a legal plain. Legal nihilism leads to death for those who start it and those who happen to be nearby."

Likewise, in comments on December 7, Putin attempted to play on Russians' fears about chaos. "People in our country don't want the situation in Russia to develop like it did in Kyrgyzstan and, not so long ago, in Ukraine," he said. "Nobody wants chaos."

Lipman says the Kremlin has historically exploited fears of nationalists and of chaos in order to justify tightening the screws on the opposition, but adds that this time such plans may backfire.

"I don't see a concerted message from the authorities to begin with," Lipman says, "because the bulk of the protesters are not nationalists and they would be further driven to say that the government is again falsifying and it would give them an additional boost."

Naif Akmalov and Alsu Kurmasheva of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report from Prague

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