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Russia 2012: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

By Leonid Bershidsky
December 26, 2012 6:39 PM EST

(Corrects year in ninth paragraph.)

From hope of meaningful political reform to a new cold war against the U.S.  -- this is the road Russia has traveled in the past year. It has been a time of political upheaval and triumphant reaction.

In December 2011, a rigged parliamentary election led to mass protests in Moscow and other big Russian cities, now remembered as the Snow Revolution. For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of people were marching along Moscow streets in peaceful protest. After the first big rally on Dec. 10, 2011, ever bigger demonstrations  took place in quick succession. In February 2012, about 35,000 people, most wearing white ribbons, lined up along Moscow's Garden Ring Road, which circles the city center, and held hands to form the Great White Ring. Flower vendors sold white carnations at a discount to those who said they were for fair elections.

For the first time in years, Russian intellectuals, students, white-collar workers and small-business people openly showed they were  unhappy with the way their country was governed. A group of informal leaders emerged, including a few best-selling authors, some liberal journalists and a number of political activists who had for years fought Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime in obscurity but were now pushed into the limelight. Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny was suddenly no longer just a sarcastic campaigner for minority-shareholder rights and against budget embezzlement. He was a leader of crowds.

Veterans of the movement recall his speech on Dec. 24, 2011: "Those who are in the Kremlin now are sitting there because they have TV, some police and a couple of corrupt judges. But they do not have us." Navalny promised that a million people would soon take to the streets in protest, and it seemed entirely believable. "We are the power here," he said.

President Dmitri Medvedev met with a group of protest leaders, listened politely to their proposals and largely ignored them, opting instead for a milder version of political reform, which cut the number of people necessary to set up a political party from 50,000 to 500, brought back direct gubernatorial elections and made other relatively minor concessions. It looked as though much more was possible and the Kremlin just needed a stronger push to force a hasty retreat.

Medvedev, however, was just a lame duck: He had agreed not to run for re-election in the presidential vote of March 4, giving his friend Vladimir Putin a shot at his third term. Putin, who had branded the protesters "Bandar-logs," after the lawless monkeys of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book," didn't  plan to make any concessions at all. He planned to go to war.

An unprecedented 650,000 Russians had signed up to observe the election so Putin couldn't rig it. Putin himself ordered every polling station fitted with Web cameras -- at a cost of about $500 million -- and transparent ballot boxes. The nation watched the voting on a special Web site. Some shenanigans still occurred. But even discounting them, Putin carried the day, primarily in the poorer regions of Russia. In Moscow, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov beat Putin in some well-to-do neighborhoods, but even in the capital, the current president took first place in the end.  He wept  when Medvedev declared him the winner. His press service later blamed Putin's tears on the wind.

Putin waited until after his May 7 inauguration to counterattack. The day before the ceremony, another rally in central Moscow disintegrated into street fighting, and the president-elect rode to the Kremlin along empty streets, cleared of Muscovites as a precaution. That eerie ride was a symbol of things to come.

Back in December 2011, Putin accused the U.S. State Department of instigating the Moscow protests. His subsequent tactics and rhetoric signaled a return to Soviet notions of liberal dissenters as agents of unfriendly foreign powers.

Energized by Putin's victory, which was somewhat more legitimate than their own, parliamentary deputies  passed laws in quick succession imposing heavy fines for unsanctioned mass gatherings, creating a framework for Internet censorship (ostensibly in the interest of protecting children from smut), diluting Medvedev's half-hearted political reform and restricting the activities of nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding.

People involved in the May 6 fighting -- and some who had simply attended the rally -- were rounded up and charged with attacking police. Twelve of them are now awaiting trial. At the same time, three members of a women's punk band were tried for an impromptu show they had staged at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, calling on the Virgin Mary to "chase away Putin."  They received two-year sentences, though one of the three was later released. Some opposition leaders' apartments were searched in a manner reminiscent of the persecution of Soviet dissidents in the 1970s. Navalny has been accused of various economic crimes: There are three outstanding criminal cases against him.

It is hard to say now whether the Russian opposition could have risen to the challenge. It did not. The number of protest marchers diminished with every new event. In October, only about 80,000 people voted to elect an Opposition Coordinating Council, a feeble, cumbersome body of 45 leaders unable of doing much to counteract Putin's muscle tactics.

The president's reactionary drive culminated on Dec. 21, 2012, when the parliament's lower house overwhelmingly approved a bill banning Americans' adoptions of Russian children in retaliation for  U.S. legislation banning Russian officials involved in human-rights violations from entering the United States. The asymmetrical response caused an uproar on social networks and in the media. Even some government ministers said that hurting orphans to prove a point was going a little too far.

But Putin, speaking at a press conference, strongly endorsed the legislation. All year, he made it clear that he didn't believe protesters represented a significant part of the Russian people. And the polls on the anti-adoption bill proved him right. The Public Opinion Foundation said that 56 percent of Russians were in favor of the U.S. adoption ban and only 21 percent were against it.

The year ends with Putin still riding high despite a visible back problem, which forced him to reschedule some foreign trips. The opposition seems powerless and confused. "What happened a year ago was totally unexpected," wrote columnist Kirill Rogov, referring to last December's protests. "So the whole year passed in attempts to understand what it had all been about." Rogov went on to say that  if after the December rallies "Putin had changed into a woman's dress and fled,  no one would have known what to do."

By pushing back his opponents instead, Putin showed that, at 60, he still knows what cards to play with most Russians: traditional values, Orthodox Christianity, anti-Americanism. As a man deeply rooted in the Soviet past, he has fallen back on the old regime's tested recipes for suppressing dissent, and he has succeeded in annihilating the threat of peaceful revolution that seemed so real a year ago.

The year 2013 will be a time for the opposition to regroup and find new ways to convince the majority of Russian populace that going backward in time ultimately isn't the best idea.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: bershidsky@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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