After Russia's Winter Break
Liberals and Communists Regroup
By Israel Shamir
Midwinter recess stopped everything in Russia. It was
like August in France some years ago, mutatis mutandis,
with snow instead of sand, fir trees instead of palms,
and vodka instead of pastis. For two weeks, the whole
country laid off work and relaxed. Moscow was blissfully
empty of its crowds, though Red Square was thronged by
hundreds of Tajik and Philippine "guest workers."
Usually busy shifting snow loads and washing floors, the
invisible class was free to view the tourist sights of
the capital and to be seen in broad daylight.
As for the natives, there was the boisterous New Year
celebration, quite similar to the Western Christmas, the
feast of partying, booze, presents and corporate events.
Coming a full week later, the Russian Christmas retained
all the quality of a religious feast, so peaceful, so
tranquil with its well-attended midnight service. And
afterward there was another week for skiing and
People also traveled a lot. Ordinary masses descended
on Turkey and Egyptian Red Sea beaches. Nationalists
went to Ustyug the Great, a tiny ancient borough in the
permafrost Russian North. The Facebook revolutionaries
flew away to Bali, Goa and Acapulco. Only now have they
begun to trickle back to Moscow and other big cities.
The moment of an "orange revolution" - if it ever was -
has been lost, perhaps irrevocably. The long winter
break calmed people down and cooled their spirits. It is
also too cold for demonstrations. But some changes are
likely to occur.
The Communists finally decided to initiate some demos
of their own, while inviting other activists to join
them. The first Communist-led demonstration was
scheduled for January 22, to build up the party chairman
Gennady Zuganov as a credible alternative to Putin in
the forthcoming elections. Zuganov promised, if he wins,
to free the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and to
hold new elections to the Parliament, these being main
demands of the liberal demonstrators. Thus, the
Communists try to attract the restless liberal Frondeurs
to their side. For pro-Western forces in Moscow, that
will be a difficult choice: they will have to decide
whom do they hate more: Putin or Communists?
The opposition has lost its momentum, but now they
are trying to regroup, while negotiating with Putin's
government behind the scenes. Their numbers are small,
but they are well positioned. Though ex-Finance Minister
Kudrin is now out of power and with the protesters, all
his former minions are still installed in the upper
echelons. The opposition has a lot of media at its
disposal barring the powerful federal TV channels, and
the latter are mainly putting out entertainment. The
opposition has its supporters among the ultra-rich, and
within the inner sanctum of the Secret Service as well.
Liberal anti-Putin papers receive quite a lot of
advertising from friendly oligarchs.
Alexei Navalny is a new, rising star of the
opposition movement, though he has received some
negative publicity too. He made his name on disclosures
of the barely legal tricks of Russian officialdom
integrated with the moneyed crowd. These disclosures
would hardly amaze Americans who remember Enron and the
Brits who follow Tony Blair's tax saga. Apparently, that
is in part where the Russians learned the features of
real capitalism, mainly warts.
"Windrush Ventures No. 3 LP, for example, consists on
paper of a partnership between an entity owned by B.
himself and an anonymous off-the-shelf company. This
off-the-shelf company, which appears to have been set up
by B.'s lawyer is merely called BDBCO No. 819 Ltd. Set
up as a nominee company to act as a trustee, or an
executor of a will, this entity does not reveal its
ownership on records at Companies House. Instead, its
shares are listed as held by a second off-the-shelf
entity, BDBCO No. 822. This company, in turn, conceals
its true ownership. Its shares are listed as held by the
lawyers, acting as nominees. This partner company does
not appear to have made any significant investments on
its own behalf. The register shows that its sole
contribution to the partnership when it was set up in
December 2007 was the sum of £19."
This is actually an excerpt from the Guardian article
on Tony Blair, but it could be, with slight change of
names, a Navalny report on "Russian corruption." Such
ugly arrangements - together with profiteering, usury
and asset-stripping - are the mainstay of the current
world political economical system. They should be
disclosed, outlawed and punished, no doubt, but they are
not uniquely or predominantly Russian, rather
"modern-capitalist." The U.S. ambassador in Moscow
reported on Navalny some years ago to his bosses,
calling him "a Russian Don Quixote" (08MOSCOW2632), for
he fought a widely spread and common injustice.
Interestingly, this cable was first published by the
Guardian team led by their Russian correspondent Luke
Harding, but Navalny's name was excised - a habitual
protective tactic by Harding for Russians connected with
Western power structures. Navalny spent a few months on
some education program at Yale. Many conspiratorially
minded Russians are suspicious of Navalny and view him
as a "Washington's agent," but, for our part, we
shouldn't fault Navalny for his muckraking but rather
congratulate him on his work.
Navalny's other line was the uncovering of shady oil
deals. The U.S. Embassy was not impressed by his
results: they checked his findings, according to the
wikileaked cable 08MOSCOW3380, with Western managers who
told them in confidence that Russian seaborne oil trade
had became "open and transparent," in the words of Dave
Chapman, general director of oil trading for Shell
The idea of Navalny as a new savior ran into
obstacles, as his liberal supporters were visibly upset
by his ties with Russian nationalists. An old Moscow
liberal lady, a respected widow, reported that he called
an Azeri party member by a racist term and was expelled
from the liberal Yabloko party. Navalny reportedly made
snide remarks about Georgian poets qua Georgians.
However, the Russians are quite tolerant of racist abuse
and probably this story did not hurt him much.
In a long interview with another liberal luminary,
the best-seller writer B. Akunin (a Russian Harold
Robbins), Navalny tried to dispel such fears, but he did
not denounce nationalism. Perhaps Navalny's nationalism
is a clever card well played: at the top of the new
Fronde there are not many ethnic Russians, and a "real
Russian" with nationalist background would be a good
thing to have in the front of a revolutionary movement
which is blessed by many Jews.
"Ethnic origin" is not a major consideration in
Russia - the country has been led by Tatars (Ivan the
Terrible was a son of a Tatar princess), Germans
(Catherine the Great was a German princess by birth),
Jews (Trotsky and Sverdlov), by Georgians (Stalin) and
Ukrainians (Brezhnev, also Khrushchev). Ethnic Russian
nationalism was actively discouraged in Soviet times.
Still, it is an advantage to have an ethnic-Russian
personality at the helm of a movement.
It seems that the anti-Putin movement flirts with
Russian nationalists of a new post-Breivik sort:
violently anti-Muslim and rather pro-Jewish. The
liberals hope that these nationalists will become their
storm troopers. Moscow liberals are strongly anti-Muslim
and in particular they foam against the North
Caucasians, a hot-tempered mountain folk somewhat
similar to Sicilians and Corsicans. Their foreign
supporters in the State Department and elsewhere hope
this new breed of Russian nationalists will break
Russia's ties with Iran and Syria, and, not impossibly,
will cause dismemberment of Russia proper by splitting
off its Muslim-populated regions of Tatarstan and North
Putin is aware of this trend: he has brought home
from his Brussels assignment Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's
envoy to NATO, and made him a deputy prime minister.
Rogozin, like Navalny, has a Russian nationalist
background, but, as opposed to Navalny, he stands for
Russia's friendship with its Muslim neighbours, for he
perceives the U.S.A. poses the greatest threat to
Russia. Though they both are nationalists, for Rogozin,
Caucasus is an asset, for Navalny, a liability.
Many liberals and non-ethnic Russians are deeply
suspicious of Navalny. But their presentation of Navalny
as a "new Hitler" is far-fetched. Blue-eyed,
good-looking, a dash of the racist, yes, but not an
especially silver-tongued one. Navalny tried to talk to
the demonstrators in December but was catcalled more
than once. His manner was too rude, as if he were
talking to a street gang. His "program," as it was
presented to Akunin, is concentrated on legal matters:
independence of judiciary, subordination of police to
municipalities, honest elections - hardly the stuff
revolutions are made of.
Even more odd, when asked for a model state Russia
should follow, Navalny said, "Singapore." This is an odd
choice for a person fighting Putin's strong-arm style,
as Lee Kuan Yew was probably more authoritarian than
Putin. As fond as I am of Singapore street cooking, I
can't imagine a less suitable model for a vast
multinational ex-empire than the tiny Chinese polis.
If Alexei Navalny is the strongest champion the
liberal opposition can field to challenge Vladimir Putin,
there is little danger to the present regime from this
corner. Still, some unseen authority, call him a master
of discourse, gave the green light to pounce on Putin.
Previously obsequious politicians and journalists refer
to the prime minister as if he were already in disgrace.
A songwriter who composed a year ago a hit "All Girls
Dream of a Husband Like Putin" now penned another hit,
"Our Madhouse Votes for Putin." A governor appointed by
Putin dared to reply to his criticism with scathing, "He
does not understand things." Columnists made a short
shrift of his program. In order to stabilize his hold on
power, Putin must reinstall respect and fear, and this
can be done by initiating corruption trials against his
subordinates - or by strong stand against the U.S. plans
regarding Iran and Syria. The visiting Russian warships
in the Syrian port of Tartus and delivery of
shore-to-ship missiles imply that Putin does not intend
to act like a lame duck. CP
has been sending dispatches to CounterPunch from Moscow.