Russia’s Democratic Opposition and Putin’s Silent Majority

Posted March 7th, 2012 at 3:37 pm (UTC+0)

Putin supporters in Moscow may be from out of town, but they formed a majority in Sunday's election.

Russia’s democratic opposition now has to deal with the elephant in the living room: Russia’s silent majority elected Vladimir Putin President on Sunday.

This week in Moscow, there is a post mortem round of press conferences.
The European observer group correctly called the election process heavily skewed toward the official candidate.
Golos, the vote monitoring group, estimated that Putin won with “50 percent plus a pixel.” (Whatever that means).
On Wednesday, the Voters League, which includes many opposition figures, said their data gave Putin 53 percent of the vote.

For most Russians, Sunday’s election has enough legitimacy to last until oil prices collapse again. When that happens (it always does), Putin may find he is standing on a hill of sand.

But, for now, the opposition has to deal the election results.

In my first presidential election in the United States, I was a volunteer campaign worker for the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. George McGovern. All the cool people were for McGovern. The argument against reelecting President Richard Nixon was crystal clear, a no brainer.

Next stop: the back of a police truck for this anti-Putin protester.

The American people did not buy that. Nixon’s silent majority carried every state, except mine, Massachusetts.

Today, I see a faint echo in Russia.

On Sunday, the urban elite turned against Putin. He failed to get a majority in Moscow and barely won a majority in his home city, St. Petersburg.

In a measure of Putin’s unpopularity in Russia’s two largest cities, his campaign billboards there did not feature his image. In Moscow, his one campaign event and his Sunday night victory rallies were not promoted locally. Instead, they were filled with supporters bused in from out of town.

Moscow is Russia’s media capital, and the press (myself included) have had a field day interviewing the smart, charming, self-confident, opposition supporters. Reporters love news, and this winter, the protest movement was new.
It was harder to break through to Putin supporters. They were often sullen, generally reluctant to talk to reporters, and often half-hearted in their support for Putin after 12 years of his rule. Mike Schwirtz did a fine job in his Sunday New York Times piece from Lubertsy.

This press failing reminds me of an insight a reporter friend, Ken Freed, gained while covering the Iranian revolution for The Los Angeles Times in the fall of 1978. When shooting broke out in Teheran between pro- and anti-Shah forces, he took refuge in an open street sewer in Teheran (where he caught a skin disease). Reflecting on the journalism business from this inglorious spot, Ken concluded that many foreign reporters had taken the easy path in Iran, interviewing those nice Iranians who spoke English and had studied oil production at the University of Texas. Those Iranians now live in Los Angeles.

Back to modern Russia.

Moscow's welcoming committee for people unhappy with Vladimir Putin's new 6-year presidential term.

Cool Russia and un-cool Russia will have to come to terms.

Opposition hardliners looking for direct confrontation play straight into the playbook of President-elect Putin. Ever since a 2004 tent encampment in Kyiv forced the annulment of a presidential election in Ukraine, Putin has been warning of the threat of “Orange Revolution.”

In January, as preparation for this post-election week, Putin doubled police salaries. On Monday night, his black uniformed Robo Cop police army was fully deployed in downtown Moscow – pumped up riot police with shields, bullet proof vests, black helmets and combat boots.

In a street confrontation, the opposition will lose. More importantly, it will lose the vast majority of middle class backers who have no interest in violence. One turnout test will be Saturday. The opposition has a permit, a forecast of sunny weather, and a central location – the New Arbat entertainment avenue.

But now, the opposition should focus on reforms that will swell their ranks long term.
Hold the Kremlin to its December promise to create a national “public” TV that would not answer to state controls. This would allow opposition voices to reach the half of Russia that is not online.

Another December promise — direct elections for governors, should be expanded to mayors. Democracy starts at grassroots level.

These Russians back Prime Minister Putin. Both pro-Putin and anti-Putin forces have adopted the ghostly Putin photo from the Time magazine's 2007 Person of the Year.

Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire businessman, came in second in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The nearly 1 million Muscovites who voted for him should pressure President-elect Putin to adopt Prokhorov’s agenda – cut red tape, cut corruption, and lift the dead weight of the state off the backs of entrepreneurs.

It is no accident that Russia’s pro-Putin silent majority was largely made up of voters dependent on the government – for jobs, pensions, and spending. Twenty years after the collapse of communism, about half of Russia’s economy still depends on the state.

Finally, with the arrival next month of spring, the street protest movement should migrate to city parks – like Moscow’s newly renovated Park Kulturii. There, in the tradition of the American teach-in and the French political kermesse, the tens of thousands of people who volunteered as election observers Sunday can channel their energies into putting in place the building blocks of civil society – joining neighborhood groups, green groups, women groups, new political parties, and, dare I say it, gay groups.

People want to work for causes where they see an impact. It was this growth of civil society that made possible Brazil’s transition in the 1980s and 1990s from military rule to multi-party democracy.

Russia’s evolution may be different. But as a friend remarked to me the other day: Russians are idealists disguised as cynics.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

6 responses to “Russia’s Democratic Opposition and Putin’s Silent Majority”

  1. WhatWindsMeUp says:

    First: Could you tray to sort out you own protesters in USA using more less human way. They are “Coolers” too.(Clean you garden first, OK?)
    Second: Most of “hot heads”-initiators of protests left Moscow for Israel and USA till next elections. They are useless to be full time paid for next 6 years.
    Third: The Prokhorov has “playboy`s” success and not for long. Reality check: he MUST to take a part in Putin`s government and to show how brainy he is not just for young chicks but for rest of public.(including gays:))
    Forth: The Gay groups are quiet “busy” in another Moscow `s parks- no time for revolutions.
    Fifth: More and more Russians can understand English, in same time – your`s segregationist propaganda. That makes them cynical. Period. Not good for you.
    Sixth: I prefer cynical Russians than naive Americans despite all this Russian-demonizing, anti-Slavic, not very deeply hidden agenda.
    Good luck!

    • Gennady says:

      To WhatWindsMeUp

      1. It’s crystal clear that you are paid for the declarations you have made. Your comments (expressing concerns of your paymaster) are without any proof and look paranoiac; they are paid for from Russia’s budget and taken from 80% poverty stricken population.
      It’s ill-omened when the result of the “win” is announced before the end of counting and on the anniversary of death of admired bloody Stalin who suffered from the same disorder all his life when all threats to prolong anticonstitutional rule they saw from abroad.
      Your paymaster has become frail with his age as he drops ballot and tears in public. They always relied on duped Russian people. Those whom they couldn’t dupe or gagged they murdered in cold blood as dozens outspoken journalists or switched off from on-line as me.

      2. Certainly V.Putin’s win is an insult to the Russian people, the same as to call the skewed election result “open and honest struggle”. We in Russia live in surreal world when those in power lost the sense of reality, accountability and justice.

      3. I admire the reservations and restraint of some world leaders and the US State Department to congratulate the people (but not the “winner”) on the completion of the presidential poll.
      How we can trust and validate the elections results gained from the people held hostage, under police batons and other tools of intimidation?
      What sort of the election can produce people held hostage with “carousel” voting and absentees ballots?
      They are fig’s leaves designed to deceive the world that they have with a legitimate people’s representative.
      What can a FSB man on the top of the hill symbolize?

      4. I disagree with the notion of “Russia’s Opposition”. It actually should imply “Constitutionally conscious citizens” striving for the rule of law in Russia, against the lawlessness and cynicism of those in power. Strictly speaking, it isn’t an opposition at all. How can one oppose his country’s Constitution and laws? But everybody can wish for them. Why nobody questions the fact that the last years Russia has been living in undeclared STATE OF EMERGENCY when some sensitive Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen stipulated in the Constitution of the Russian Federation had been suspended and violated? I mean the articles 17.1,22.1,29.1,29.5,31. As the article 56.1 says such could have happened under the State of emergency to protect violation of the constitutional system. Who has declared the state of emergency and why has declared? What kind of constitutional system do we have? The answer is – Mr. Putin and his rubber-stamping lawmakers in order to prolong their fatal rule. Is Russia in a state of war? No, it isn’t. So the infringement of the Constitution was invoked for the protection of the constitutional violation under Putin.1 & Putin.2 rule.

      5. Focusing on reforms for swelling ranks of Constitutionally conscious citizens, direct elections of governors, cutting red tape and corruption, lifting the dead weight of the state off the backs of entrepreneurs, putting in place the building blocks of civil society are good ideas. But first things first! The slogan should be “To restore the constitutional Order in Russia and abolish undeclared usurpation of power!” Just after that – to hold free and fair elections. Constitutionally conscious citizens should not recognize the results as well as anticonstitutional arrests of the peaceful activists.

      • WhatWindsMeUp says:

        My “broken glass English” can not be paid by any government, Sir…And look at yours- at least somebody paid 33 silver coins! Well done, keep digging! I will see you after 6 years.

  2. Vlad says:

    Mr.Brooke.I agree with you.You are absolutely correct.

  3. John says:

    Prokhorov came in first in Canada, with Russians resident in Canada (Ottawa+Toronto+Montréal+Vancouver) voting: Zhirinovsky 103, Zyuganov 345, Mironov 142, Prokhorov 1433, Putin 1186.

  4. […] Russia Watch: Russia’s Democratic Opposition and Putin’s Silent Majority […]



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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