As such signs suggest, Russians have become less inhibited in their opposition. Despite serving 15 days in jail, Alexei Navalny recently vowed that protestors could seize the Kremlin and pledged to take up to 1 million protestors to the streets in the run-up to the March election. Even television, formerly the preserve of government approved programming, is becoming more fearless. On December 18, the current affairs show Central Television program on channel NTV – itself owned by state-run gas company Gazprom – featured a 10-minute satirical broadside against Putin that highlighted polls showing his plummeting popularity and likened him to dictators like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. The aggressively anti-Putin tenor of the show was all the more remarkable because the typically pro-government channel had just recently run a smear campaign against Golos, Russia’s sole independent election monitoring group. Now Putin was the target.
For its part the government, having failed in its strategy of waiting for the protestors to fade away, has moved to offer token concessions. Putin, after initially disparaging the demonstrations, has said that they “need to be treated with respect,” though he continues to insist that the December 4th elections were legitimate. President Medvedev has paid lip service to greater transparency and recently announced that reforms were in the works to allow a wider range of parties and candidates to compete in elections — though only after the March presidential election. Neither proposal has mollified the protestors, who have vowed to return to the streets in the months ahead.
Encouraging as the rising opposition has been, serious challenges remain. Most notably, there is no unified platform or political figure around which the protestors can rally. The fact has not gone unnoticed by Putin, who has noted that “There are no people who could do something concrete.” There is also concern that some of the opposition figures could be co-opted by the government. Eyebrows were raised when Putin announced that Alexei Kudrin, a disgruntled former finance minister who had supported the protestors, remained on his “team.” Some opposition activists also worry that the decision of billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, to challenge Putin in the next election is a political ploy, designed to put a competitive gloss on an election that will not be truly contested.
Even if the March election proves to be business as usual, however, the events of the past month suggest that Russian politics has been transformed. Just as the freezing months have arrived, Russians’ disengagement from political affairs seems to be melting. If that continues, it could be a long Russian winter for Putin.
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