Praise the rank-and-file protestors. Deride the 'professional opposition.' Offer some concessions on the margins. Divide, rule, and hope everything goes back to 'normal.'
This appears to be the Kremlin's strategy for dealing with Russia's new post-December 4 political milieu.
There were hints of this in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's December 15 live call-in program
where he proposed some tepid political reforms and claimed to be "pleased" to see "young, active people formulating their opinion clearly" in anti-government protests -- while darkly suggesting that some of their leaders were in the pay of foreign powers.
And there were more hints in President Dmitry Medvedev's state-of-the-nation speech
on Thursday when he proposed "a comprehensive reform of the political system" that would give "all active citizens the legal chance to participate in political life" -- but vowed that the authorities would "not let provocateurs and extremists involve society in their adventures."
But the clearest indication of how Team Putin plans to proceed came -- fittingly -- in comments by Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's unofficial ideologist.
In an interview that appeared today in "Izvestiya,"
Surkov suggested that the reforms Putin and Medvedev were offering -- restoring the election of governors, easing the rules for registering candidates and parties for elections -- would be sufficient to assuage the protest movement:
Change is not just coming, it has already taken place. The system has already changed. This is a fait accompli. Look at the results of the Duma elections. Look at the protests on Bolotnaya Square. Look at the discussions on the web. Look at the prime minister's call-in program on December 15. Look at the president's address to the nation. All that remains is to formalize these changes legally.
I think some influential people may try to slow down these changes, but they will not stop the process. The tectonic structure of the society has been set in motion. The social fabric has acquired a new quality. We are already in the future. And the future is troubled. But there is no reason to be afraid. Turbulence, even strong turbulence, is not a disaster, but rather a kind of stability. Everything will be fine.
And he made a distinction between the majority of the protesters, whose opinions deserve respect, and a minority of rabble rousers seeking to foster a colored revolution:
There are those who wish to convert the protests into an Orange Revolution, that's for sure. They are acting according to the methods of [non-violent revolutionary theorist Gene] Sharp and using the latest revolutionary techniques to such an extent that it has even become boring. I would advise these gentlemen to abandon that dream.
But the point is not these swindlers. The point is the absolute reality and naturalness of the protests. This is the best part of our society, or rather, the most productive part of society -- and it is demanding self-respect.
They are saying 'we are here, we are meaningful, we are people.' We cannot arrogantly dismiss their opinions. The right thing for the authorities to do is to take their opinions into account and respond benevolently. We have proposed the direct election of governors and the practically free registration of parties. We are yielding to the reasonable requirements of the active part of society -- we were not forced to do this, it is our constitutional duty and obligation.
Of course, one could argue that those going to the streets are a minority. This is true, but what a minority! And if you look, after all, at the ruling majority, it is also, in fact, a minority. It is just a bigger minority. Modern democracy in a complex and fractured society is generally a democracy of minorities. If you think strategically and listen to the minority, then among them you will find tomorrow's leaders.
Of course, the crowd may make unreasonable demands, and at times and kowtow to provocateurs. But for provocateurs we have the law. We have a duty to protect the state's foundations and the constitutional order.
So Team Putin has started to negotiate with a newly energized civil society. They appear to be gambling that the concessions they offered will be enough to take the steam out of the protests and split the previously apolitical (or previously pro-Putin) middle class -- which accounts for the mass of the demonstrators -- from leading opposition figures like Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin, Aleksei Navalny, and Yevgenia Chirikova. They aim to appease the former while isolating and discrediting the latter.
Surkov is a clever man and he can certainly see and understand that it wasn't a handful of outsiders who came to the streets and squares in December. There was a new force -- people who had basically been apolitical. According to the principle of 'divide and conquer,' Surkov is seeking to divide this force -- which still doesn't have a leader or a structure -- from the non-systemic opposition, which has long pushed for changes.
Whether it will work is still an open question. And there is an important detail that Surkov (as well as Putin and Medvedev) left out: none of the proposed reforms will be enacted until at least 2013, when the current election cycle is over and Putin is safely embedded in the Kremlin.
Political analyst Paul Svyatenko makes this case in an interview with Kommersant FM:
Surkov's interview was an attempt to argue that the demonstration on Saturday makes no sense because the authorities have already solved the issues that were driving people to the streets. But in reality this is not the case. The measures proposed by Medvedev in his December 22 speech only mapped out ways to democratize Russia's political system. But they will not be implemented until the next electoral cycle, which means for the Duma in 2016 and for president in 2018.
There has been some chatter among journalists and analysts suggesting that Surkov, who was passed over for Kremlin chief of staff in favor of Sergei Ivanov, is on the outs. "Kommersant,"
for example, cited unidentified sources as saying Putin wouldn't work with him.
Likewise, political analyst Igor Bunin suggested in an interview on Dozhd TV
that Surkov's comments to "Izvestiya" were out of step with the elite's thinking because he praised the protesters.
The claim in "Kommersant" could be true. But I think that a more likely explanation for Surkov being passed over (if that is indeed what happened) that he is more suited to working in the shadows, as a deputy chief of staff and informal ideologist, than as the Kremlin's chief administrsor.
But his "Izvestiya" interview is, in my opinion, completely on message and consistent with the narrative being pushed by both Putin and Medvedev.
-- Brian Whitmore