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Russian Spring?

Voices of Russia’s Progressive Opposition

by Al Berg

PHOTO via flickr by 'Person behind the scenes'
PHOTO via flickr by 'Person behind the scenes'
PHOTO Ivan Ninenko
PHOTO Ivan Ninenko

Moscow - The following is the first in a four part series on the recent demonstrations in Russia.  Al Berg recently spent two months in Moscow, meeting with many radicals and interviewing four young activists.

It's been a lively couple of months for Russia's opposition. After last December's parliamentary elections, the country saw the largest demonstrations since the 1990's. At freezing temperatures, tens of thousands gathered in Moscow alone to protest against irregularities and against the victorious "United Russia" - the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev.

The tenfold increase in turnout, compared to any demonstration in recent memory, surprised everyone, especially the opposition itself. As the focus shifted to the Presidential Elections on March 4th, on which Putin was to be re-elected for his third term as President, several more large demonstrations were organized by a newly confident opposition. For Putin's inauguration in early May, there were plans for a "March of Millions".  Tens of thousands protested according to some media outlets, with over 450 arrests.
Discontent has not just surfaced in mass demos. Civil society organizations are gaining strength in campaigning against state repression and for accountability. The all-female punk band Pussy Riot made headlines with impromptu performances on the Red Square and inside Moscow's largest Orthodox Cathedral. The subsequent jailing of three band-members has been accompanied by picketing and subversive artwork in different Russian cities. In the provincial city of Astrakhan, popular leftist politician and former MP Oleg Shein forced authorities to admit irregularities by staging a 40 day hunger strike after losing the mayoral election there to a pro-Putin candidate.

Many are now asking themselves this: with the recent surge of dissent against the Putin system, is there reason to hope that political repression and the power of the Oligarchs are waning, and that Russia may soon be heading down a more progressive path? Is there a Russian Spring in the making? I met with four young activists, with different approaches to politics, to hear their take on the current situation.

Ivan Ninenko

Ivan, 28, confidently speaks about the present state of affairs. Currently finishing his PhD in political science, he is an expert on corruption and accountability of state organs well connected across national borders. As the deputy chair of the Russian chapter of Transparency International, an NGO fighting corruption, he is featured on national TV shows and often travels abroad.  

It was this international experience that shaped his political development, as he is not shy to explain. "I used to be quite a liberal, because in the 90's when I grew up, people thought that as soon as we establish a liberal, capitalist democracy all our problems will be solved. But after coming in contact with people in other countries, I realized its not that simple, and I have come to hold more leftist and anarchist views," he said.  

His activism stretches across some typical dogmatic lines within the progressive camp. He is engaged in a broad civic campaign for more police accountability but can also be seen, megaphone in hand, at Antifascist rallies in support of imprisoned activists - all the while wearing a German Green Party T-shirt.   

His analysis of why the opposition has experienced the recent surge focuses on the belief that Putin was blatantly cheating. "People are outraged at the disrespect shown to them by Putin," said Ninenko. "He would have probably won fair and square. But they rigged the elections anyway, just to make sure."

He is very cautious making predictions for what is to come. "If I've realized anything since December, it is that all the bets are off for predicting the country's political future."
Still, he tries to give a sense: "I can see the regional elections now starting to become contested and thus the struggle moving into the provinces. Look at what's happening in Astrakhan, for example, with Shein's hunger strike. It's possible that there will soon be anti-Kremlin regional governors.”

What political color he would expect those first oppositional politicians to be?

"There will probably be a lot of nationalists elected, but people will soon realize that they’re not much use once in power. But that moment will be a challenge for the opposition in general, because actual political content will have to be defined. Things may get pretty interesting as people come to terms with what their political convictions actually are."
When pressed about which opposition figure he sees playing a central role in politics to come, he responds: "Even though I'm not a fan of the guy, [liberal blogger with nationalist tendencies] Alexey Navalny will probably be a key figure."

"Putin's presidency may be over soon," he adds.  "Or, [it will] last a few more years...but one thing to remember is that it all depends on the price of oil, because that's what his power is based on."

Al Berg's four-part series on opposition to the Russian elects continues this week on the Media Co-op.

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