I find that I have almost no company in my perspective that the mass demonstrations in Moscow are not going to lead to a period of liberalization, but to another long round of Putin and the siloviki; and that far from at least enlargening the space for civil society in Russia even in Putin wins the exercise of resisting or protesting the March 4 elections is going to lead to a huge crackdown.
The template for this was already worked out in the post-Soviet testing grounds of Belarus and Kazakhstan. In Minsk, 40,000 people came to demonstrate against fraudulent elections in December 2010 in that far more oppressive country, but hundreds were detained and sentenced to 15 or 30 days in jail, and dozens got heavy sentences of 2 or 4 or more years and remain in jail. In Kazakhstan, thousands went on strike in the only significant labour protest in the region, and remain striking for more than a year, but in the end at least 14 workers were shot dead, dozens were wounded, and several opposition leaders and independent journalists have been arrested are now facing serious jail sentences.
Russia is more free than Belarus or Kazakhstan, but not by much, and the crackdown will be just as brutal as it was in those countries, and have a similar (although not as blanket) an effect. Are they ready? Are we?
So I have my heart in my mouth as I see all these people blogging and insulting Putin and demonstrating and even threatening to come in and overthrow the people in the Kremlin, as I think they are going to get their asses handed to them. Yes, that's crude, but I do hope they and their Western friends are preparing a bunker, and securing an effective clandestine human rights movement to survive the coming years. Is anyone going to heed the voice of young Smirnov, son of a veteran political prisoner, on hro.org, pointing out that the publishing of Boris Nemtsov's cell phone calls not only meant that people should think more about encryption, but that they should behave as if they are always being bugged and be more careful?
When I express these qualms, I'm told that I haven't been to Moscow in some years -- i.e. haven't gotten the contact high -- or I must just be a sourpuss or "jealous" that some other bunch than the shaggy dissidents with holes in their sweaters and taped-up eyeglasses we knew aren't the ones bringing in the Era of New Revival but instead are iphone-toting latte drinkers and carbonara-eaters.
But you don't have to take it from me, look at what Putin and his goons are preparing behind the scenes.
First, you remember how we were all saying that Surkov, the Kremlin's grey cardinal was "demoted" by being moved over to another position in government and put in charge of "innovation," the Death Valley version of Silicon Valley without any actual entrepreneurial freedom? Well, the rest of his portfolio was huge and had everything from sports to religion. Religion! Can you imagine his hands on that?
Already, we see his possible handiwork -- or "Medvedev's project" as we're told -- today comes the news that religion will become a compulsory subject in elementary and middle schools, after a trial period of teaching religion in some schools. Students apparently "may choose to study either the history of one of the four religions termed 'traditional' - Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism - or more general courses on "foundations of religious culture" or "Fundamentals of public ethics " -- which one do you think they'll pick?
So Surkov is planning his clandestine bunker through "education" in case his gang loses -- the smart ideological movements always do (which is why my daughter is studying the Marxist revisionist historian Eric Foner's textbook of American history, and not The Patriot's History -- or anything in between).
So what else is happening?
Sergei Lukashevsky, the director of the Sakharov Foundation in Moscow, warns us how the government is tinkering -- again -- with the law on non-governmental associations and the regulations relating to foreign financing. Lukashevsky writes that the authorities have been trying to rein in NGOs for years, not successfully as they keep fighting back. Fine-printed laws are used to subjects groups to inspections or hoop-jumping -- and most of them are able to comply after being rattled, which forces the government to use "arbitrariness" rather than actual legal reasons to close independent groups.
But the Duma is always trying to demonstrate their vigilance against "colour revolutions" -- and no doubt, against "Arab Springs". A draft bill is being prepared with amendments that would tighten control over those who get foreign grants -- think "Hillary Clinton" and "Golos" and the fury that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed over such foreign "meddling" -- to the point that some of marchers now kid among themselves that if their cars or fur hats aren't top of the line, it's because Hillary hasn't come through for them as planned. Says grani.ru about possible NGO law amendments:
The amendments were discussed Thursday [February 2] at a round table in the State Duma. Aleksey Ostrovsky, the head of the Duma Committee on Civic Associations, said "An unequivocal understanding was reached of the need for more precise, detailed legal regulation of the processes for creating, financing and functioning of NGOs that receive foreign funding." According to Ostrovsky, "NGOs that have only domestic sources of funding should be absolutely separate in their rules, capabilities and duties from NGOs financed from abroad."
Well, that's nasty, because the groups that sometimes need most help from abroad tend to be the ones with the most internal problems -- and most membership or clients -- to deal with. Like human rights groups. They aren't the ones limited to mere foreign educational exchange or exotic studies. So that's ominous, and bears watching to see if it goes anywhere (and not everything conceived by the Duma does go anywhere, but remember, this is the Duma you got out of the last -- fraudulent -- elections, and nobody has succeeded in getting a re-count.)
Yet another troubling sign is what's happening to Ekho Moskvy, one of the few independent media outlets in Russia. It's hard to appreciate this fact during the heady days when -- on orders from...whoever it is that is doing all this -- the state-controlled TV is now turning anti-Putin or at least covering dissenters on the streets. Editor-in-chief Aleksey Venediktov has been told that his immediate resignation has been requested, along with some independent board members.
Milov reminds us today that Ekho Moskvy has Gazprom -- the state gas monopoly -- as its majority stakeholder and describes what's happening at the radio (and it's a sign of the times that you could have seen it all first on Twitter before you saw it on Facebook):
We're now have some confused internal drama in which Ekho, with all due respect, has agreed to play. Here is Ekho's communique коммюнике "Эха" regarding the situation. What follows from this? What follows is that it turns out the demand to convene an extraordinary meeting of Gazprom-media share-holders was made back on...December 30th! So why all the noise only now?
Most likely, because Gazprom-Media demanded that two independent members of the Ekho board of directors -- Makovsky and Yasin -- be exchanged for more "dependent" members? But in his communique, Venediktov writes that a solution has already been found for a compromise list of members of the board of directors! Perhaps, they want to shut Ekho's mouth before the presidential elections?
In other news, Kseniya Sobchak, daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the liberal governor of St. Petersburg who died some years ago, who has been a very visible figure lately with the demonstrations, tweets that her TV show called "Gosdep" has been shut down just as she was planning to interview Navalny. Maybe she should have given it a name that didn't sound like Hillary's stronghold?
Of course, there will be many skirmishes of this nature leading up to the elections and even after the elections and none of it is (yet) likely set in stone. I'm watching, for example, to see if Durov holds at Vkontakte and doesn't shut down groups or delete accounts or turn over information about users. My request to the sprightly Vadim, the community manager at Facebook, about whether Facebook's Russian investors have access to user data, led my comment to be muted.
You know, there are several ways to look at all this, I suppose. Either the Putin machine is preparing for the backlash, or the anti-Putin nationalists are successful now enough to march through the institutions and the revolution is going to leave to more conservative forces having more freedom (as in Egypt). Either way, all those people who tell you they "waked up in a different country" may keep waking up in a different country.