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Two's A Crowd

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov holds an individual picket near the detention center where another activist was being held in August.

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov holds an individual picket near the detention center where another activist was being held in August.

As many Russians revel or slumber through 10 days of well-lubricated winter holidays, there's been a lot of handwringing elsewhere over the failure of President Dmitry Medvedev's promise of liberal reform in the wake of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky's second sentencing last week.

It's the latest stage in a long cycle of alternating expressions of hope for Russian reform and exasperation over evidence to the contrary -- and it's based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Russia's political system.

Just look at what's happening on Moscow's streets. As "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" report today, police are arresting people staging so-called single-picket protests -- one-person demos allowed under law -- to dispute the imprisonment of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and other jailed dissenters.

The demonstrators are usually detained when members of pro-Kremlin youth groups brazenly run up to stand nearby -- often holding banners denouncing Nemtsov and others -- despite the best efforts of the opposition supporters to remain alone.

'Sanctioned' Protests

That kind of action has been taking place for years now. But optimists were heartened late last year when the authorities began giving permits for limited numbers of people to take part in opposition demonstrations.

Nemtsov was sentenced to 15 days in prison for taking part in just such a sanctioned protest, that one against Khodorkovsky's sentencing. The trouble is that the giving of permits has enabled the Kremlin to generate good press while maintaining arbitrary power for the police to crack down on protesters because no one can say whether more than the allowed, say, 200 demonstrators turned up for this or that rally, or whether they behaved legally (Nemtsov was arrested for allegedly trying to cross a police line).

The fact is that under Russia's supreme leader, Prime Minster Vladimir Putin, perceived liberalization has never outpaced the country's steadily growing authoritarianism. On the contrary, relaxing the rules has often enabled the authorities to crack down more efficiently, as in the case of supposedly allowed protests. More important, apparent liberalization has usually served the important role of obscuring the Kremlin's increasingly authoritarian nature.

Enabling Putin

Russia's rigged elections serve the same purpose. So has Medvedev from the moment Putin picked him to take over the presidency in 2008. The new man's seemingly outraged denunciations of Russia's "legal nihilism" and corruption in good old Bolshevik-sounding rhetoric have helped give rise to an industry of speculation over his apparent secret split from Putin.

Russia-watchers eager to show they know something the rest of us don't have been splitting hairs over elusive signs that one or another's star was rising or fading -- and they've done the West a disservice for years by playing into the Kremlin's hands. Incredibly, years after Medvedev's election, some are still speculating over when he'll actually take power -- ignoring repressive new laws, impunity for brutal attacks against Kremlin critics, and the ongoing installment of Putin cronies in almost every important political office.

In fact it was neither real news nor any kind of failed test for Medvedev that Khodorkovsky received a maximum sentence. Courageous protesters still braving freezing temperatures and arrest are to be commended for helping expose the ruling system's true nature, which is so corrupt it perceives the slightest opposition as a threat. The demonstrators may be only single in number, but their actions speak far louder than any kind of democratic-sounding rhetoric from the likes of Medvedev or any other enablers of Putin's regime.

-- Gregory Feifer

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at