Russia: The Kremlin's Dilemma

Image by World Economic Forum, Flickr. Switzerland, 2009.

For the last few days in Moscow, with the outcome of this Sunday’s presidential election in Russia having been clear for some time now—a near certain first-round victory for Vladimir Putin—the city’s political class has been consumed with different intrigues: how might particular falsifications occur and where, would the opposition be able to settle on a singular post-election strategy, and would the Moscow city administration provide approval for a protest on Monday, the day after the election?

The answer to this latter question appeared set to determine the trajectory of political and social life in Moscow in the coming days—whether the immediate aftermath of the election would be marked by peaceful, organized expressions of dissatisfaction, or by something more anarchic and harder to control, and, as all sides feared, potentially violent.

The Kremlin was faced with a dilemma: if the city allowed the demonstration, it would signal that Moscow’s season of protest is not yet over, and that the state in Putin’s new term could still be pressured; but if it forbade any demonstration, tens of thousands might very well come out anyway, setting a stage for a clash that would reflect the worst on the authorities.

At first, those representatives of the opposition negotiating with the mayor’s office were steadfast in their demand that whatever place the city grants for an opposition protest, it had to be central and it couldn’t be Bolotnaya Square, the site of two demonstrations since December. Not only was Bolotnaya too far from the Kremlin, the opposition reasoned, but also after the December and February protests, “people are tired of standing there,” as one person close to the talks with the mayor’s office told me. They wanted Lubyanka, a large traffic circle just outside the headquarters of the FSB (once the KGB), resonant with historical significance. That request was denied, and then, after days of seemingly fruitless negotiations, a compromise was reached on Thursday night: the opposition could hold a rally Monday evening at Pushkin Square, a site with its own historical shadow, where regular and widely followed silent protests were held in Soviet times.

And so, until then, a sort of eerie calm settled over the city. What ultimately will happen on Sunday is known by nearly everyone. Putin will be announced as Russia’s next president. But exactly how that will happen—with obvious, documented falsifications, or with demonstrative, almost goading triumphalism, or with spirited efforts by individual Russians to prevent such things—will take another two days to become apparent.

Opposition leaders have made great efforts in the past several weeks to argue that Sunday’s election is already illegitimate and has been for some time, given how the state has managed to keep any opposition it doesn’t favor off the ballot (hence the disqualification of Grigory Yavlinsky from the liberal Yabloko party; and, at the same time, the Kremlin’s apparent approval of Mikhail Prokhorov’s inclusion in the race) and the extraordinary amount of administrative resources lavished on Putin (for example, the news departments of state-run television covering Putin’s every move as prime minister as fawningly as any campaign advertisement). They argue that the process of elections involves much more than just voting, and thus, their work will continue long after Sunday. On that day, a particular moment in Russia’s newfound political and civic rebirth will end, and another one will begin.