Ben Aris in Moscow -
Nikolai Alexeyev, one of the leaders of Russia's Gay Pride movement, is wearing a light suit and a rather gaudy tie as he chats to two friends outside the Chisty Prudy metro station in central Moscow. He has come directly from a court date following his arrest a week earlier for organising and attending an illegal rally in Moscow. With his smart clothes and unimposing manner, he is an unexpected and rare example of a Russian prepared to brave being "hit over the head with police clubs," something that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatened demonstrators with in August.
"I am fed up with all the people in power," says Alexeyev a short while later as we sipped beer in a nearby cafe. "The standard of life is decreasing and the time of high oil prices when the Kremlin could buy everyone off is gone. I don't want to wait any more for my freedoms or civil rights as a gay - I want them now."
Alexeyev's hearing was adjourned until November, but the worst he faces is a RUB15,000 ($50) fine. Given this was his 11th arrest, the court dates and smart attire is becoming a bit of a routine for him in his increasingly militant battle to win recognition for sexual minority rights in Russia. And Alexeyev is far from being alone in his push for more civil rights - a rising tide of special interest protest groups have become increasingly vocal over the last two years. Russia's first crop of political activists range from drivers with blue buckets tapped to the roofs of their cars to complain about the abuse of traffic rules, to the environmentalists who stopped the construction of a road through the Khimki forest on the edge of the capital.
And things are starting to change fast. We met two days after President Dmitry Medvedev sacked Moscow's long-time mayor Yuri Luzhkov in the third week of October and Luzhkov's departure has brought real change.
Literally a day after the president sacked the mayor, Alexeyev got permission to hold the first-ever public protest in Moscow. "We happened to put in a request to picket the Swiss Air office on Monday," says Alexeyev, who was pulled off a flight to Switzerland, where his partner lives, in September on spurious grounds. "Luzhkov was sacked on Tuesday and we were given permission [to picket the office] on Wednesday."
Then a week later, the Strategy-31 movement, which has been protesting for the right to demonstrate, enshrined in Article 31 of the constitution (hence the name), was given permission to hold its first event on Triumph Square in the centre of Moscow on October 31 after being refused umpteen times. Some 1,500 protesters gathered carrying banners and chanting "Russia without Putin!" The demonstration went off quietly, but the mere fact it was allowed to happen was a small revolution for Russia's civil rights movement.
So what colour will Russia's revolution be? Red is the obvious choice, but that's already been done. Maybe a rainbow revolution, as the gay pride movement has been extremely active and the municipal court in St Petersburg has just ruled to overturn a ban on the gay pride march planned for July. But Given Muscovites' love of expensive clothes, maybe "the Gucci Revolution" is the most appropriate moniker.
Speed up or go slow
Opinion is divided on why suddenly opposition groups are being allowed to demonstrate. Has there been a real change of heart in the Kremlin or are the tightly controlled demonstrations merely a sop to allow the opposition to blow off some steam? What is clear is that the Kremlin is trying to strike a balance between placating its critics and keeping control of the development of civil society, and that it has just taken a baby-step towards fulfilling the Kremlin's promises of increased civil liberty.
Medvedev has talked constantly about promoting civil society and bne sources in human rights organisations that have met with the president in the official public chamber meetings say he "gets it" when talking about the need for political freedom. However, Putin is playing the bad cop and warned in an interview with Kommersant in August that if protesters gathered without sanction, "They will be bashed on the head with a club," and that a softer government position would only embolden them.
Comments like this only enrage the proto-protest movement and further radicalize them. "When the prime minister said that the police would use weapons against a peaceful demonstration, that is against the criminal code," rails Alexeyev,
The danger is that the Kremlin gets the mix wrong. A small incident, something like the death of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in Ukraine or even the withdrawal of Russian pensioners' bus passes a few years ago, could quickly snowball into a regime-changing popular protest if the underlying frustration with the government is allowed to fester long enough. At this point Putin clearly believes he has got the balance right. "If we understand by democracy a system of government whereby ordinary people have the chance to influence what happens in the country, then any civil society in the world... opts for a balance between stability and those elements of development that allow the country to move ahead without shaking up society," Putin said on the 10th anniversary of the death of his old boss, Anatoly Sobchak, St Petersburg's first mayor, in October. "This balance has been established in today's Russia."
Alexeyev insists he is not political and that his campaign to hold a gay pride march has become political simply because both sides dug their heels in. And this is the danger: what started out as a protest for dignity on a social issue, has metamorphosed into an increasingly radical political movement.
On May 29, the rainbow flag flew over a crowd in Moscow for the first time at an illegal gathering on Leninsky Prospekt after Alexeyev and his friends organised a "military style" action complete with "diversionary tactics" to distract the police. More than 700 gay and lesbian protestors were able to march for the press cameras for about 20 minutes. And this is what is so dangerous for the Kremlin: its intransigence is radicalising the special interest groups.
What should worry the Kremlin even more is that these special interest groups could easily unite, adopting more general political goals that would directly challenge the powers that be.
After finishing the interview, we strolled back to the Chisty Prudy metro and ran into Boris Nemtsov, one-time deputy head of government under Boris Yeltsin and fabled "young reformer" as governor of the "test bed of reform" in Nizhny Novgorod in the 1990s, who is also on friendly terms with Alexeyev.
Nemtsov was sitting at a small trestle table near the entrance to the metro as commuters streamed in and out. He had come to sign copies of his scathing report, "What 10 Years of Putin Have Brought". Nemtsov and his fellow authors - including some well-known economists - had printed 100,000 copies and were handing them out on street corners, to students, to shoppers, to anyone that would take them. "The report is the biggest opposition project in 10 years," Nemtsov telle bne later during an interview in his Spartan office near Moscow's zoo. "This is modern samizdat," referring to the underground publishing of the Soviet era.
Nemtsov is a founding member of Solidarnost, a democratic political movement named after Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement that challenged the Polish communist government at the end of the 1980s. Nemtsov's group was set up in December 2008 and includes other leading opposition figures like chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov who are trying to challenge Putin's iron grip on power.
Nemtsov is a thorn in the Kremlin's side (or at least he would like to be) and his report - with chapters like "Corruption is Eating Russia Up", "The Country is Dying Out", "Dead-End in the Caucasus", and "A country of screaming inequality" - was banned by the authorities on the risible grounds that it is "extremist literature." Most of the report is a dull statistical account of Russia's economic development over the last decade and all of it is scrupulously researched and based on official statistics.
Maybe the most scathing section of the report is the last, entitled "Medvedev and His Results", which only has seven paragraphs. "What has Medvedev actually achieved since he took over as president [in 2008]?" asks Nemtsov, who has a PhD in physics and has that politician's magic of making you feel you are the most important person in the world. "He has changed the constitution to extend the presidential term from four to six years. He has recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as countries. He gifted Ukraine $40bn in gas price discounts in exchange for keeping the Russian 'museum' fleet in Sevastopol - even the Americans only pay $8bn a year for their base in Okinawa. And he has sacked Luzhkov. That's it. His image as a liberal is wrong. He is a mirror held up to the West."
The people in the queue are not just the impoverished babushki who have borne the brunt of the Soviet collapse, but also middle-aged men carrying children, teenage girls who whip out digital camera's to snap a picture of Nemtsov and a knot of Asiatic men, probably Kazakh as the embassy is just round the corner - normal people. Nemtsov scrawls his name in the report's flysheet and reduces one old woman to a schoolgirl's giggles as he banters with the small crowd. Two policemen on the other side of the square look on, but do nothing before leaving.
Why are these people queuing up to talk to Nemtsov? What is driving the growing protest movement? One reason is clearly the global economic crisis, which led to job losses, wage cuts and general uncertainty over the future for a population that has already been through three major crises in the last 20 years.
But another reason is the emergence of a true middle class. Estimates of its size vary between about 30% of the population and just under 70%, but a growing number of Russians identify themselves as middle class, which is bound to make them more political: the drudgery of merely surviving in the 1990s is rapidly giving way to concerns over career, education of children, property prices and comfortable retirements - all things that the government is supposed to provide, but are largely dysfunctional in Russia. "After 10 years, the people are tired of Putin. One of his key claims to success is that he has ended the instability in the North Caucasus, but during his regime the number of terrorist attacks has gone up six-fold. There were 135 acts of terrorism in 2000 and 786 in 2009," says Nemtsov. "At the same time, the corruption in Russia is on a par with Africa."
And he has a point: most of the reforms that Putin put in place were aimed at industry and the biggest beneficiary was big business. The explosive economic growth that followed has lifted everyone's standard of living, but apart from expectant mothers and pensioners, the state has done little to make people's lives easier or improve public services.
For now, the state retains almost total control over the media, but the Russian internet is exploding (about a third of the population is now online) and the Kremlin has already been forced to act following online-outrage at the more egregious abuses of power. It seems that Medvedev actually reads the comments on his livejournal.ru page, Russia's answer to Facebook.
Alexeyev believes the internet will become a major force for change in Russia, whereas Nemtsov is more sceptical. "The internet has been atrophied, as the Kremlin has taken control of all the main forums like livejournal.ru, [and the leading Russian search engines of] Mail.ru, Yandex and Rambler," says Nemtsov. "Between them, these sites control 70% of Russia's internet traffic."
Both men agree that despite the protests, the state retains total control over Moscow, which is key. After being repeatedly turned down in Moscow, the gay rights movement tried to organise events in the regional cities, but Alexeyev says all the regional governments take their lead from Moscow, so they rejected his applications out of hand. Moreover, as incomes levels in Moscow are five- to six-times higher than in the rest of the country, the Muscovites are the least likely to rebel. "Any revolution has to start in Moscow and the authorities understand that if they look after the Muscovites, then the rest of the country will follow," says Alexeyev.
Nemtsov says his next step will be to try to organise a 100,000-strong rally in a square across the river from the Kremlin to force the government into making a few more concessions. However, most pundits believe that no real progress will be made until after the parliamentary and presidential elections slated for 2011 and 2012, respectively, have passed. Only then, with the presidency locked up for six years, will the Kremlin feel comfortable enough to experiment with greater freedoms.
However, if Muscovites were to suddenly find they could no longer afford their Gucci handbags, then civil strife could well follow soon after; many believe it's only relative prosperity that's keeping a lid on social discontent. Like the oligarchs, Putin has an unspoken deal with the population: I will deliver growth if you stay calm. But the crisis has undermined Putin's ability to keep his end of the bargain. The heavy social spending, the big deficit and the real prospect of growth slowing to 1-2% a year is the biggest danger the Kremlin faces and why it is working so hard to make some real reforms and attract investment, as the old model of relying on $150 oil clearly won't work any more.
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