In the run-up to Russia’s March presidential election, Vladimir Putin didn’t even bother showing up to the debates with his nominal rivals. (Instead, he sent surrogates: a movie director to one, and a nameless graduate student to another; Obama may have slept through the first debate, but at least he showed up.) In recent weeks, however, Russians have had a vigorous debate season to match America’s own. And though Russia’s televised debates aren’t intended to select the next president, they’ve evidently managed to make the current occupant of the Kremlin very uncomfortable.
The debaters belong to the fractious, motley cloud that is the Russian opposition, and the idea was, in part, an answer to the Kremlin’s standard line in pooh-poohing the protest movement: you guys are so disorganized, who do we even talk to? This past summer, an activist from Yekaterinburg named Leonid Volkov teamed up with opposition leader Alexey Navalny to give shape and momentum to the previously disorganized movement, settling on a plan to form what they called the Opposition Coordination Council, an umbrella opposition organization which would have 45 seats with reserved blocs for the various opposition political factions: the leftists, the liberals, the nationalists, and the apolitical cultural figures. The candidates, who had to pay a $300 fee to register, would then duke it out in a March-madness style debate tournament on the opposition television station Dozhd (“Rain”). Then, on October 20, voters would go to the polls and elect the council.
The debates began about three weeks ago, as the two hundred candidates introduced themselves to the public and squared off against one another on late-night TV. This was an entirely new phenomenon for Russians, who hadn’t seen debates like this ever since Putin came to power. But it wasn’t like Russians were really watching; the debates were shown after midnight on a channel that has relatively little reach. And when, on October 14, the opposition was blown out in various nation-wide elections for real-life mayorships and other municipal posts – Putin’s United Russia, though weakened, trounced all such challengers – these doubts weighed even heavier. Was this all just an onanistic pageant for the insular Moscow chattering class?
But then the Kremlin weighed in. On Wednesday, it arrested leftist leader and Council candidate Sergei Udaltsov after a lengthy search of his apartment. Udaltsov had been caught on camera meeting with some Georgians and for that he is now, strangely, being charged with “organizing mass disorder.” Then the State Prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into the planning committee of the Coordination Council for alleged fraud. The issue was that not all those who had tried to register as candidates were allowed to participate in the debates: an imprisoned neo–Nazi was turned away, as were some provocateurs from a famous pyramid scheme (called MMM), which has been around since the 1990s and which the government seems unable or unwilling to shut down. Ironically, it was the latter who cried fraud. Their registration fees ($300 x 53 rejected registrants) were not returned, though Volkov had published a plea on the Council’s site, asking for information on where to return the money. (They had been traceless deposits, rather than bank transfers.)
By cracking down three days before these elections, the Kremlin has displayed its usual cruelty; but, in trying to crush the opposition movement, it has also stupidly managed to grant it wider legitimacy. Yesterday’s actions have become a rallying cry to get people to an opposition protest planned for Saturday, a loud reminder to those who once came to this winter’s protests and have since been lulled into boredom and complacency: this is what we’re up against. Udaltsov, despite his widely mocked aviators and pompous airs, despite his tactical bone-headedness and general irrelevance among the opposition, is being transformed into a martyr. And suddenly, the Council elections this weekend seem very important. The Kremlin will no doubt continue to publicly claim that the casting of some 120,000 votes in an unofficial election is meaningless in a country of 140 million, but its actions show that they are not. If they were truly meaningless, they wouldn’t have bothered. “Now everyone who has a different opinion of the country’s situation is targeted,” said Communist leader (and Udaltsov ally) Gennady Zyuganov. “And there is only one goal: to suffocate completely any seeds of protest.” But instead of suffocating protests, the Kremlin has stoked them.
And the larger problem, of course, is that the Kremlin’s crackdown perpetuates the notion that politics in Russia is inevitably a zero-sum game. The more the Kremlin shows that it is not interested in dialogue or even the slightest compromise, the less the opposition will want only to topple, rather than change, the current order. And, given enough time, the reformers will fall away and the real, start-over revolutionaries will take their place. This is Russia, after all, a fact the Kremlin constantly forgets.