Global Affairs: All change at Red Square

Confrontation brewing between Kremlin and political opponents, but ruling party expected to survive.

Russian protester 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Russian protester 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The air is cold, the sky is grey and Moscow’s sprawling road network is jammed with heavy traffic. Two things quickly become apparent as I make my way from the airport to the center of the Russian metropolis.
First, the traffic is made up of brand new, expensive vehicles ranging from BMWs with blacked out windows to Mercedes to Chevys, sprinkled with the occasional luxury jeep.
Second, the sheer size of the city, and length of its traffic jams, take on breathtaking proportions.
Residential tower blocks in the suburbs eventually turn into a densely packed mix of impressive modern buildings, elegant historical structures and fairy-tale-like Orthodox church cathedrals with their multiple colorful domes.
A walk down any bustling central Moscow street reveals that this city has worked hard to banish any trace of the communist empire that was once based here. Bars, cafes, and shops with all conceivable goods – few of them cheap – are decorated with rows of digital signs displaying a range of information.
Yet beneath this ultra-capitalist, ambitious and energetic urban vastness, a confrontation is brewing between forces seeking to change Russia’s political system and the Kremlin.
The feud began after the results of parliamentary elections came out this month and caused some to slam the procedure as a fraud. The ruling United Russia Party, headed by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is plotting his return to the presidential throne in the next elections, won the vote.
“People told me they’re very disappointed – not because of the results, which they knew ahead of time – but because there was no attempt to hide the tricks used by the ruling party to keep its position,” said Emil Shleymovich, a Russian- Israeli journalist.
Shleymovich works for Israel Radio’s Russian-language station and for the Israel-based RTV1 Russian television station. He also served as an independent elections monitor in several east-European countries.
“This is what insulted them, that there was no thought about how the ordinary person would see things,” he added.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered last week in Moscow to vent their emotions in an event largely organized on the Internet. It was the largest protest of its kind in nearly two decades.
Putin has dismissed criticisms of the vote as US-inspired intervention in Russian affairs aimed at undermining the country's sovereignty, while the Russian news agency Life News published what it said were leaked e-mails between independent elections monitors and the US State Department. The report suggested that a financial reward was offered to the monitors for every example of an irregularity submitted.
Medvedev took a softer line, telling Russians via his Facebook page that he ordered an examination of the elections and that 117 complaints were received regarding foul play in “certain polling stations.”
According to accounts heard by Shleymovich, however, some of the elections tactics went far beyond the ballot box. “I know of two big factories where management told voters that if they wanted to receive their full salaries, they had to take cellphone pictures of their voting documents, including their names, signatures and a United Russia vote,” he said.
“These people don't get a lot of money, so of course they voted [as they were told],” he added.
“When the regime works in such a coarse way, this offends people.”
Shleymovich also noted that while internet blogs said 70,000 to 80,000 people attended the anti-elections rally, the official count stood at only 25,000 people, the same number reported to have attended a pro-United Russia party a few days later in Moscow’s Red Square.
Shleymovich, who saw the demonstration, said there were 2,000 to 3,000 people in attendance, at most, at the counter- rally, “and most of them were kids.”
The confrontation is tearing apart sections of Russia’s media as well, with the editor-in-chief of an influential weekly magazine, Kommersant, fired for publishing a photo of a ballot defaced with an anti-Putin obscenity.
One hundred journalists from the publication held a protest in solidarity with their former editor this week and demanded that the owner, billionaire Alisher Usmanov, reinstate him, according to a report by The Moscow Times, a liberal English-language newspaper critical of the government.
The Moscow Times also reported this week on the surprising announcement by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov to run against Putin. But, the Times added, the new candidate’s refusal to lay out his criticism of the government stoked “speculation that his presidential bid was orchestrated by the powers that be.”
Prokhorov’s candidacy could “soothe a middle class seemingly frustrated about its lack of a political voice,” the Times said.
The middle classes form only one layer of the opposition. Shleymovich conceded that the opposition also has many extreme and dangerous components that have nothing in common with liberal forces other than their dislike of the government.
“The opposition is not united. There are neo-Nazis, anarchists and communists there. When you look at all these people, you don’t know what could happen if they get into power. There are many extreme forces," he said.
Ultimately, the ruling party should easily weather the storm, and remain powerful, Shleymoich added.
As domestic and foreign media focus on the demonstrations and intrigues, the majority of Moscow’s streets continue to be filled with shoppers, commuters and, of course, heavy traffic, moving much like the pace of change in the country – slowly and consistently.