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It's one of the big questions about Russia: When will the state serve the people? The latest crackdown on protesters in Moscow points to an answer: Not yet.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Not long after he came to power in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev set out what he said would be a fundamental principle for governing the Soviet Union: "The state is there to serve the people," he said. "The people are not there to serve the state."
After centuries of heavy-handed, top-down rule under tsars and Communist Party chiefs, it was a tantalizing prospect.
Nearly 35 years but only two Kremlin leaders later, unless you count the placeholder presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, the potentially momentous events unleashed by what could have been a quiet election of a local legislature -- the Moscow City Duma -- serve as fresh evidence that under Russian President Vladimir Putin, this principle is not in place.
What has happened, in short, is that thousands of Russians came out peacefully in central Moscow on July 27 to press the authorities to let independent and opposition candidates run for city council seats, overturning bans they suspect were based on fabricated claims of forged signatures and other problems cited by electoral officials in barring them from the September ballot.
And nearly 1,400 of them were detained, many beaten or roughed up in the process. Some have been handed jail terms of up to 30 days.
The authorities, such as Kremlin-backed Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, argued that the state was serving the people when it cracked down -- at least those people who wanted, say, to get from Pushkin Square to Red Square without encountering a crowd of protesters, police, or both outside his office on Tverskaya Street, a main thoroughfare.
Sobyanin called the use of force “absolutely appropriate,” asserting that activists attempted to block streets and that they attacked police -- a claim denied by protesters.
But it might be hard for Putin or the mayor to argue that they were serving the people pictured in several striking images shot on a bright summer Saturday in the capital: A young couple wrestled to the ground and beaten by police.
A line of camouflage-clad officers, elbows locked and advancing in a crouch toward a seemingly mild, milling crowd.
A teenage girl sitting cross-legged on the pavement before being detained and held overnight at a precinct house.
Like other localized protests around Russia this year -- for the preservation of a park in the sprawl-hit Urals city of Yekaterinburg, or against a garbage dump in the Arkhangelsk region up north -- the Moscow protesters are essentially demanding “a dignity consistent with their roles as citizens,” as Anna Arutunyan, senior Russia analyst at the International Crisis Group, put it on Twitter.
The government’s response, she suggested, has been driven not by the public interest but by “fear…that its own legitimacy might be somehow too compromised to withstand the natural attributes of a law- and institution-based civic society that the Kremlin itself has been keen (OK, in mixed ways) to foster.”
Another way to put that might be: Putin says Russia is a democracy, but he fears the development of real democracy.
Since Putin came to power in 2000, critics say, the Kremlin has used several levers of power to thwart political plurality. Two of the big ones are measures taken to control elections, at every stage from party registration to ballot counts, and the suppression of dissent on the streets, from laws making it harder for Russians to protest to police crackdowns on those who defy the odds and do so.
A lot of people have been doing so in Moscow this summer -- but not enough to tip the scales, by most accounts.
Organizers reported a crowd of 22,000 protesters on July 20 and about half that on July 27 -- though it’s hard to count when lines of riot police make access to the planned protest site impossible and detain some would-be demonstrators, as well as some bystanders, before they arrive.
In any case, though, the numbers are smaller than those recorded at several points in the wave of protests that gathered force in December 2011, fueled by anger over evidence of widespread fraud favoring the ruling United Russia party in parliamentary elections and dismay at Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin the following year after a stint as prime minister.
They are also far smaller -- in my memory but also according to more reliable accounts -- than the massive crowd that filled the expanse in front of the Kremlin at a rally in central Moscow before the Soviet Union fell apart.
“Every city has [a] critical mass” in terms of protest numbers, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote on Twitter. In Kyiv “about 100,000” was enough to push Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014, he suggested, while “it's probably more than 500,000 for Barcelona, where few people are willing to fight the police.”
For Moscow, Bershidsky wrote, 20,000 is “certainly nowhere near” critical mass, which he defines in part as a crowd so large that some of the security forces switch sides and join the protesters -- the fulfilment of a wishful chant "the police are with the people," which has been heard at many past demonstrations. “I saw side-switching during million-strong demos in 1990. So what needs to happen for the critical mass to emerge? I have no clear answer.”
The Kremlin may not have a clear answer either, and clearly does not want to find out the hard way. The use of what Western governments and global human-rights groups called “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate” force by police suggests that Putin and his government are hoping to frighten Russians in the hope that the numbers don’t grow, several analysts said.
“When a regime demonstrates its ability to suppress protest, it's not trying to scare the actual protesters,” Bershidsky wrote. “It's trying to scare those who are thinking of joining the protests -- by trying to show it won't pay.”
Got Your Back
Analyst Sam Greene, after arguing that “the Kremlin understands that increased violence will not demobilize the opposition,” concluded that the desire to keep more Muscovites from hitting the streets in protest is one of only “two possible explanations” for the crackdown on July 27.
“Explanation 1 is that the Kremlin wants to send a message to fence-sitters in the general public -- many of whom are increasingly dissatisfied with how the country is governed and their own economic prospects -- that joining the opposition is dangerous,” wrote Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.
“Explanation 2 is that the message is really aimed at the elite,” he wrote. “Putin knows he's more likely to be brought down by elite defection than by mass unrest. So, if the elite are getting skittish about public dissatisfaction, Putin will want them to know that he's willing to put the force of the state at the defense of their interests.”
If that’s the case, Gorbachev’s maxim would have to be edited to clarify that the state is there to serve “some of the people,” but not very many. In public comments, Putin has a mixed record on the issue of who is supposed to serve whom. He has likened his workload to that of a “galley slave,” and has referred to himself as “your humble servant.”
But his remarks have sometimes rankled Russians who have detected hints that he believes the people’s role is to serve the state. An example was when he lashed out at “criminal negligence” after a fire at a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo in March 2018 killed 60 people, and suggested that it ran counter to his efforts to increase Russia’s population.
“We talk about demography and we are losing so many people,” Putin said at the time.
And later last year, he spoke breezily of nuclear war in a warning to Washington that also raised hackles at home -- saying that in the event of atomic attack, retribution would be so swift that while Russians “would go to heaven as martyrs,” citizens of the “aggressor” state “would just croak because they wouldn’t even have time to repent."
One analyst seemed to suggest that while Putin may not be heeding the words spoken by Gorbachev after he came to power, he is drawing conclusions from the developments that pushed the last Soviet leader out of power.
"The Kremlin remembers the Gorbachev era perfectly: Open the window a bit, and they will open the entire door...and thus it begins," Liliya Shevtsova wrote in a commentary published on the website of Ekho Moskvy radio.