Article by: Vitaliy Portnikov
If Russians really want change, they should first focus on the authoritarianism of Putin. Corruption is only a wonderful lightning rod, a beautiful “vaccination” against the real political struggle.
Many Ukrainians may be less surprised by the fact that thousands of Russian have taken to the streets than by their reason for doing so.
The well-known chauvinist blogger Alexei Navalny, who sided with the Russian government at the time of Russia’s attack on Georgia and who discounts even the possibility that Russia could give up the occupation of Crimea, has been tirelessly repeating the “fight against corruption” theme to his supporters.
It was Navalny himself who flung his contemptuous “Crimea is not a sandwich” at Ukrainians. It was Navalny who prepared the investigation of the corrupt practices of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It is specifically Medvedev and not the real head of Russian corruption, president Vladimir Putin, who has become the main protagonist of the unauthorized protests.
The paradox resides in the fact that most of the protestors are representatives of Moscow’s so-called “creative class,” which as recently as a few years ago saw in Medvedev the hope for the liberalization of the regime and viewed that famous “castling move” — the exchange of positions between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin — as a real political disaster.
If Medvedev had remained head of state at the time, many Muscovites would have greeted such a decision with enthusiasm, despite the recent war in Georgia and the complete absence of any signs of liberalization. And Medvedev’s corruption would not have bothered them because they were well aware of it even before Navalny’s notorious investigation.
How can the protestors not be bothered by the fact that the transformation of Medvedev into the main target of the “anti-corruption fight” is setting the stage for the complete seizure of the government and the financial flows by Putin’s security forces.
I will not say that Putin does not control the government now. He does. And when it comes to the financial flows, not fully. This means that the Russian president may simply lack the funds to implement his own plans, which may include a great war.
If the Russians really want change, Putin should be at the center of any action. And the protest should be directed against war, against authoritarianism and the occupation of foreign lands. Corruption is simply a wonderful lightning rod, a beautiful “vaccination” against the real political struggle.
But I would not accuse the Russians of political schizophrenia because you and I have also lived in a country with political schizophrenics before 2013. Even now, three years after the beginning of the war, we have not freed ourselves of the psychology of the past.
Ukrainians also were not eager to participate in mass protests when the real authoritarianism based on the Putin model was being established. Ukrainians agreed to the usurpation of power, to the illegal formation of the government, the replacement of the Constitution, the trials of political leaders and their unlawful conviction, the liquidation of self-government in Kyiv — and these were only the obvious signs of dictatorship.
The people who protested against the idiotic trial of Yulia Tymoshenko were marginalized, while politicians who remained free rushed to Savik Shuster’s government-managed show, and citizens who remained free convinced themselves that this was “freedom of speech.”
The first real mass demonstration in Kyiv and other cities in the country– together with the encampment on Maidan — began only after the government rejected the course of European integration, which the government itself had carefully promoted. But even then the demonstrators explained that they did not want any confrontation with the government and were not even demanding that it reject selective justice.
Not only activists but even ordinary students said they would have no problem with the illegal imprisonment of Tymoshenko, which outraged the European Union, if only Yanukovych signed the agreement that many viewed as the way to a better life. Even Tymoshenko herself urged that her fate not be linked with the fate of the agreement — as if the issue had to do with her and not with principle.
The country was moving inexorably toward disaster because, as we can now say with certainty, a real disaster would have happened if Yanukovych had signed the agreement and if authoritarianism and selective justice had been preserved. The example of Moldova, whose citizens, after signing the association agreement, voted for a pro-Russian president who supports the rejection of the agreement is a perfect example of what would have happened in Ukraine.
But here the Yanukovych regime committed a fatal error — fatal for himself and a salvation for the country — when he decided not to sign the agreement and to disperse the students by force. The political schizophrenia ended and the Maidan began. A real Maidan.
What is happening in Russia now (and, incidentally, in Belarus) is what we had in Ukraine before the real Maidan. And Alexei Navalny with his investigations and appeals to take a walk in the center of Moscow is simply an imitation of Mustafa Nayem with his trips to Mezhyhiria and his appeals to come to the center of Kyiv. Nothing new is happening; the circumstances are the same.
What happens now will depend on the behavior of the Russian authorities and the Russian society. For a real protest to begin, it will be necessary for the authorities to act with unwarranted harshness and to ignore any demands by the citizens, and for these citizens to be supported by millions of their compatriots who are ready to come out in the street and protect those who have been detained and beaten.
The Russian government always acts with unwarranted harshness. The dispersal of students on Maidan is child’s play for Putin. But there is no indication there are millions of Russian compatriots who are ready to protest against such behavior by the Kremlin on the streets of Moscow and other cities. And for a real protest, for the collapse of the regime, these millions are necessary, as they were necessary in Kyiv.
This is why the student protest in November 2013 led to a real Maidan and the collapse of the regime of the enemy of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. But the outing on Tverskaya Street (main street in Moscow — Ed.) in March 2017 will be limited to a review of the strength of the Moscow intelligentsia that, even during this demonstration, has not dared to issue a real challenge to the real enemy of Russia — Vladimir Putin.