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'We Will Advance, They Will Retreat'

Two leaders of Russia’s protest movement discuss the year to come. From openDemocracy.

by Boris Akunin and Alexei Navalny 17 January 2012

This is the second part of a three-part conversation between essayist and novelist Boris Akunin and blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.


Grigory Chkhartishvili, a.k.a Boris Akunin:


Boris Akunin
In this part let’s change the format of the conversation. Why don’t we exchange ideas about what the coming year has in store for us? Could we compare our hypotheses about the further course of events?


I am not a politician. It is not my place to develop strategies and propose answers to the question, “What is to be done?” Guessing “What will happen?” is a different matter and one that does fall within my competence as a writer.


I think that in 2012 Moscow (and Russia as a whole) will be the most interesting and important place on the planet. Just as a quarter century ago, during Perestroika, the eyes of the world will be upon us. The battle between a newly awakened civil society and an authoritarian regime is a thrilling spectacle to observe.


Two Russias will fight it out – the democratic and the “arrestocratic.”


We will make every possible use of our natural weapons – openness, an appeal to reason and decency, a cheerful confidence that we are in the right; our opponents will also fight using every means at their disposal: dirty tricks, the unleashing of the security forces against us, underhanded maneuvers, and fraud.                    


We will advance, they will retreat.


If Putin knew his history, he would remember a wise old rule: If you cannot stop a process, head it. That is the only way for a leader to have a hope of staying in the game, although under different conditions from before. Although I doubt whether our “national leader” has the nous and the balls for such a volte-face. 


He is more likely to keep up his terribly macho pose, while making one concession after another. He will start with something small, give them a scapegoat – Churov, head of the Central Electoral Commission, for example. He’ll take a look – has the public calmed down? No? Then he will let Khodorkovsky out of prison. What? They are still complaining? Then I’ll promise to declare an amnesty for the 200,000 business owners behind bars, victims of police raids and corrupt judges. What? That’s still not enough?


There will be endless delays in carrying out these measures. But meanwhile the protest movement will grow, spread around the whole country, and acquire an organized structure (this has already begun to happen). New, unheard of forms of civil protest will appear alongside the usual processions and rallies. And everything will be aimed at Vladimir Putin, for he is at once the strongest and the most vulnerable point of the regime.


The rest of the winter months will pass to the sound of the battle cry “Let’s Screw Putin,” and by 4 March the movement will reach its climax.


Only a few shreds of Putin’s popularity will remain. Victory in the first round is completely out of the question. Putin’s chief opponent will be the candidate who announces, loudly and clearly, “Vote for me – I will immediately dissolve the Duma and call a new election.” In the second round Putin will have no chance against such a candidate. Mass fraud around the counting of votes will be impossible, because millions of sharp eyes will be watching the electoral committees. And anyway, what will be the point of such fraud? It is impossible to rule a country where you are not wanted. It is impossible to live and work in a capital where you are hated and despised. Call yourself president as much as you like – you won’t last.


This is what I think will happen. 


Theoretically, of course, Putin could surprise us all – promise to dissolve the Duma himself, introduce reforms, release all the jailbirds, and so on and so forth.  But even if he makes the promise, people might not believe him.


So tell me, how far does my forecast tally with yours?


Alexei Navalny:


Alexei Navalny
I think you have an over-romanticized view of our revolutionary future. Putin knows his history well, and the rule “Head the process, so that you can stop it in its tracks” has served him well in domestic politics.


I am sure that the Kremlin’s main strategy in the next few months will be to neutralize the climate of protest using the traditional tools of deception and bribery.


Instead of genuine political reform we will be offered a system where they will offer professional political activists a comfortable enough existence, and they’ll also have need to create three competing liberal groupings, a couple of nationalist ones, a couple left-wing. Each micro-leader will be offered money, support, and a bit of screen time on TV, along with a hint that he is the liberal/nationalist with a real future, and the rest are all scumbags.


All this political dithering will have blanket press coverage, under headlines trumpeting that “It’s a nightmare, a load of hot air, the worst aspects of the ‘90s all over again.”


We need to be clear that for Putin and his Kremlin crooks the most important thing for their political survival is to present this newly-awakened civil society as a bunch of grumpy, avaricious lunatics.


We have to be prepared for the work before us to be sometimes tedious and stressful. There is a risk of cheery creativity turning into routine and buzzy meetings ending up with everyone squabbling.


I’m not trying to exaggerate the problems – just to remind everyone that we have to be “calm and pigheaded,” as it says in the song. Then we will come out on top.


I am sure we can do it.


I am in complete agreement with your key message: we will advance, they will retreat.


The Kremlin’s confidence that any problem can be fixed with a con trick will probably cause them serious damage. If they offer one fabrication after another, people will just get more and more angry and they will swell the ranks of the protest marchers.       


I am not sure that they would be prepared to drop Churov, and even less sure that they would release Khodorkovsky. They will stick with that scoundrel Churov to the end, even though every time he appears on the TV screen he gets up the noses of millions of viewers and discredits the whole electoral process.


Everything will be exactly like in the old joke: the Kremlin mice cried and pricked themselves, but went on eating the cactus. Because they see the answer to their problems not in getting rid of Churov, but in buying off some opposition leader or installing a webcam in his bathroom and uploading the footage to the internet under the headline, “Look what the opposition is up to.”


All the mechanisms available to and normally used by the authorities for raising (retaining) their popularity will work to our benefit, i.e. their popularity will fall. Everything they try will only worsen the situation. They have a few potential cards up their sleeve, of course, such as declaring war on someone, but these days there’s no one left to fight.


Genuine major anti-corruption trials might retrieve the situation, but are they ready to convict the Rotenbergs or Kavalchuks [billionaire businessmen close to Putin]?  No way, it would be easier for Putin to start a war. 


I have said many times, and still believe, that Putin’s power was founded not on some “strongmen” or other, but on the genuine support of the public. In his 12 years at the helm, he has squandered that support, exchanged it for a comfortable existence and billions of dollars for his friends. He is still a popular politician, but not a national leader. You can’t lay claim to that title with a popularity rating of 40 percent.


The “Let’s Screw Putin” movement (I’m in complete agreement with you there – that’s our main task, all the rest is a waste of resources) needs to reduce his rating to 30 percent around the country and 15 to 25 percent in the larger cities and so destroy his real support base. It’s a completely achievable aim, given even the official election results for United Russia in the big cities.


We have the mechanisms to do this, and the activists as well – we have 100,000 out there. We just need to sort out our campaigning infrastructure and come up with creative and persuasive ways to get our message across.


The main thing is that we don’t have to lie to people. We can get through to them simply by telling them the plain facts about Putin, his billionaire friends, FSB generals whose children SUDDENLY all turned up working for state banks.

The slogan “United Russia is the Party of Crooks and Thieves” has stuck not thanks to some kind of technology, but because it’s the truth.


Then our python Kaa [i.e. Vladimir Putin, who on Russian TV likened protesters to the lawless Bandar-log monkeys, defeated by Kaa in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book] will have to choose between a believable election with a humiliatingly “uncool” second round or a victory in the first round thanks to the “wizard” Churov, the mass expulsion of observers (of whom there will be a much greater number) from polling stations, video footage of rigging, and so on.


The second option seems more likely, and on 5 March the country will have a president whom millions of Russian citizens will refuse to recognize. A president whose power rests only on fraudulent election results. Such a president will not last long. 


I can see only one way out for Putin – to abandon his claim to absolute monarchy. It’s better to have a complex coalition government, formed from a Duma elected after genuine political reform, than a brick flying through your office window.


G.Ch. Yes, I tend to agree. But I just think that events will move faster, and the regime will fall apart more quickly, than you say. The presidential campaign, with which I am sure Putin is already pretty fed up, will be a powerful catalyst.


I would like to ask you what you think about the following much debated question: Could Putin, feeling the ground crumbling under his feet, resort to repressive measures? My feeling is that he lacks sufficient resources for this and that it would only result in the protests moving out of a non-violent into a revolutionary phase. In today’s Russia a Great Terror is impossible, and a Little Terror would only add fuel to the flames. What do you think?


A.N. A characteristic of failing regimes is that they fail in everything. Even in repression.


In other words, they could of course put anyone they like behind bars for as long as they like on a trumped up charge. They could do it with one person, 10 people. They could set hired football hooligans on protesters, as they have done before. But a mass crackdown on relatively large groups of people is unlikely – that sort of thing is not so easy to coordinate and manage. You need a system, and they haven’t got one.


If you even think about the second Khodorkovsky trial, at which they threw everything they had, you could see how unconvincing it looked, how many cock-ups they made. It all ended in a complete debacle, when the clerk of the court publicly admitted that the verdict was “handed down from above.” 


Similarly clumsy reprisals (and there can be no other kind) against a large number of people will indeed lead to an escalation of protest, and this time it will be violent as well.  


This is not just a theoretical possibility – we have seen something similar happening in Dagestan and Ingushetia. 


And talking about the possibility of reprisals, let’s cast our minds back to something once said by Zbigniew Brzezinski – the bogeyman Russians scare their children with – that there is $500 billion belonging to the Russian elite lying in U.S. bank vaults. So whose elite are they – ours or yours?


And who will make the decision about repressive measures? Gennady Timchenko, citizen of Finland and dealer in Russian oil? British billionaires Abramovich and Usmanov


They are hardly likely to show any enthusiasm for suppressing dissidence if it threatens their ability to sit drinking coffee in wonderful Italian cafes and cruise on Abramovich’s luxury yacht, the Pelorus.


An American elite can’t organize repression in Russia – after that you won’t be liked in Greenwich Village or Belgravia.


If you are a Russian billionaire-crook, you may get laughed at, but you are allowed to buy football teams; if on the other hand you are a crook and a murderer they will, at the very least, refuse you a visa, and they will probably send you a tax demand – they know how to do that there as well.


Do you remember how Ramzan Kadyrov’s horse was excluded from races in the USA? Well, Abramovich doesn’t want to be Putin’s horse, forbidden to graze on the slopes of Aspen, and it’s him and people like him who take political decisions in Russia.


The plan to suppress protest will probably take two tried and tested forms: 1) attempts to restrict by law the means of disseminating information on the Internet by passing “anti-extremist” legislation and so on, 2) the allocation of more suitcases full of money for the creation of a “pro-Kremlin” Internet with its own molders of public opinion, chosen from among well-known figures in Putin’s media retinue.  


Neither of these tactics will work, but they will however get on everyone’s nerves and swell the ranks of the protesters.


G.Ch. What do you think about the increasingly popular idea that we need a centralized election campaign structure, not for a particular opposition candidate, but as an anti-Putin campaign headquarters that would be charged with coordinating protest activities in the lead-up to the election? Is this realistic? Will it work? 


A.N. We already have one; you and I were both at one of its meetings on 24 December at Sakharov Prospect. There were about 100,000 members of staff, they had gathered under openly anti-Putin slogans and were eager to spread their message and to drive the leader of the Party of Crooks and Thieves out of the Kremlin.  


I don’t think we need any other, more compact or professional, structure.


If there was an office that the police, fire services, and health and safety officers could come and inspect, you can be sure that they would do it. If they were to find there piles of centrally produced printed campaigning literature, they would arrest people under any pretext they could think of.


If there was a campaign manager with responsibility for everything, they could arrest him or her and either scare them off or buy them off. 


Why take the risk?


Those 100,000 people are both a campaign headquarters, and a perfect propaganda machine, capable of spreading necessary information to scores of millions of their fellow-citizens in a very short time.


Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “propaganda,” which has too many negative connotations – you immediately think of TV Channel One. Our task is made that much simpler by the fact that we don’t have to speak anything but the truth. You could call it the Truth Machine – it sounds sinister, it might scare the Kremlin crooks.  


Every member of this many-thousand machine needs to talk to 10 people they know, send emails, put information on social networks. That’s all we need. 


Gunvor (a giant oil trading company with alleged links to Putin – trans); Ramzan Kadyrov; Putin’s privatization in the interests of Abramovich and the immovability of officials in London; the pillaging of Gazprom and the total failure of national projects – these, the main achievements of Putin’s 12 years in power, will all speak for themselves to the voters. All we have to do is dispassionately disseminate the facts.   


I am sure there will be enough creative people among us to come up with both the right way to present the facts and safe, decentralized and large-scale means of bringing them to the public’s notice.


We mustn’t, by the way, get fixated on Putin. An anti-Putin campaign isn’t right. It should be an anti-crook-and-thief campaign. Putin is the gang leader; at the moment he is trying to distance himself from his criminal organization’s political embodiment, United Russia. We mustn’t allow him to do that.


The Party of Crooks and Thieves has put forward its candidate for president – the chief crook and thief. Our fight is not only with this gang leader, but with his despicable henchmen. That is the way we must think of it; that is the way the voters will think of it.


G.Ch. Well, whatever happens, the Year of the Dragon will not only be a special year, it will be a historic one. That is clear.

Home page photo from a video by Voice of America.
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