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Russia's liberal wind of change

'I have a story for you,' says my young Moscow acquaintance, Konstantin. 'It goes like this: President George Bush phones Prime Minister Putin.

'"Vladimir," he says, "please can you help me with my election campaign?"

'So Putin sends his 'magician', Russia's Central Election Commission Chairman Churov to Washington. But when Churov returns a few weeks later, he is downcast and apologetic: "Forgive me, Mr Putin, I could only achieve a 45 per cent vote for your party, United Russia."'

Konstantin has a lot of such jokes, full of knowing scorn for Russia's leadership, especially 'Tsar' Putin, with his self-intoxication and fawning entourage, ignorant of political realities on the street and beyond the reach of advice. Did he really think his presidential victory confirmed the love of the Russian people for his leadership?

Among Westerners and locals alike, Moscow seems to be afloat on scurrilous innuendo, focused on Putin's bully-boy tactics, his fondness for young women and his greed bordering on the pathological.

Still, for a newcomer, the narratives are also shifting and opaque. Ever since the eruption of street protests after last December's parliamentary (Duma)elections, there has been so much focus on a liberal wind of change — or at least a steady breeze.

There seem to be cracks appearing in the Kremlin's legendary spin-doctoring. Its use of 'administrative resources' to ensure the electoral outcome, including the pre-election allegations of an assassination conspiracy against Putin by Chechen separatists, seemed especially to have lacked credibility.

The Opposition Movement is said to have unsettled the Kremlin's powerbrokers. The media has been more open to public debate; and Putin responded to the campaign against electoral fraudulence by installing CC TV cameras in almost all of the 93,000 polling stations across the country.The local media estimated that more than a million volunteers were mobilised to monitor the booths.

And yet Putin's undisputed victory was a confusing result. At a press conference the day after the election, independent monitoring organisation Golos deducted a whopping 15 per cent from the government's official victory tally of more than 63 per cent.

Alongside a very public recognition, at least in Moscow and St Petersburg, that Putin does indeed lead a government for whom stealing an election was no more than business-as-usual, it appeared that around half of Russian voters still supported him.

For some commentators the explanation lies with the failures of the Opposition voice.

These days, Moscow is an in-your-face consumerist, entrepreneurial city. Along the well-swept avenues around the Kremlin, Moscovites are bundled up against the snowy cold in expensive high-fashion puff jackets and ankle-length, hooded furs. They are the new middle-class, approximately 20 per cent of the population, whose opportunities and incomes have blossomed under Putin.

Many of them are also the stalwarts of the anti-Putin opposition, gathering in their thousands in Pushkin Square or Arbat Street, the iconic places of Moscow's 19th century intelligentsia.

But as the weeks go by since the election, it seems that banking on Russia's Opposition Movement to carry the torch of democratisation could prove no more than an entry ticket into the school of lost causes. The Movement is a very loosely aligned umbrella grouping across a spectrum that includes the extreme Nationalist Right and the increasingly irrelevant Communist Left.

Consider, for example, the protests in the evening the day after the March presidential vote. The hope was that they would be bigger than ever, a critical mass that had been cheated of their vote and could not be denied. As I stood amid the crush in Pushkin Square, listening to an old Beatles song ('Ob-Bla-Di, Ob-Bla-Da, Life Goes on, Bla!') on the public address system, there seemed little sense of optimism.

I thought the mood was resigned. No doubt, the fact that it was painfully cold — minus 15 degrees — had something to do with it. As well the place was grid-locked by hundreds of riot police, and there had been some talk of the spectre of a post-election Putin crackdown.

In any event, the mostly middle-aged protesters seemed resistant to the rhetorical theatricality of self-appointed leaders Alexei Navalny and liberal oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov. Nor were they particularly supportive of the small group who were arrested for attempting an Occupy Movement sit-in.

Maybe some momentum has been lost in this division between confrontation with the authorities and legally accepted protest, that there was no longer a credible sense of where to go next.

A week later the Arbat Street demonstration gathered far fewer people — scarcely sufficient protesters for the riot police to close the road to traffic.

Dorothy HorsfieldDorothy Horsfield is a writer and journalist, and a doctoral candidate in Russian studies at the Australian National University. Her most recent novel, Venom, was published by UNSW Press in 2008.

Dorothy Horsfield is a writer and journalist,
and also currently a doctoral candidate in
Russian Studies at the Australian National
University.  Her most recent novel, Venom,
was published by UNSW Press in 2008.

Topic tags: Dorothy Horsfield, Russia, Putin



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