After a wave of massive protest rallies and promises of more to come, increasing calls for more dialogue between the government and the opposition are testing the Kremlin on its willingness to listen – and to compromise.
Even the Church weighed in over the holidays about the need to protect the country from a new revolution, like the one in 1917 that replaced established religion with Communism.
But Patriarch Kirill’s Christmas Day comments on January 7 (the day Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated) sounded more like a call to the Kremlin to move forward rather than a warning to oppositionists. “If the government remains insensitive to the expressions of protest, it is a very bad sign, it is a sign of the failure of the authorities to make adjustments,” the Patriarch said in televised comments.
The comments came after offers of mediation had already been made by Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister and a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who showed up to speak at the last mass rally on Prospect Sakharova on Dec. 24. And they resonated with calls for “evolution” rather than “revolution” made Thursday in an article for the Guardian penned by presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire who is believed to have the Kremlin’s blessing to run.
But the position of the Orthodox Church seems to be a response, in part, to calls made by Putin during his last call in show in December that citizens need better ways of communicating with state officials.
“We think that ordinary people – those who go on meetings, doctors, teachers, should also be able to talk to the authorities and the church will be able to organize this dialogue,” Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin told The Moscow News.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is the main candidate for the upcoming presidential election, has changed his tough stance on the opposition, promising a possibility of dialogue.
But these signals appear mixed with a distrust of what the oppositionists can offer.
“There should be dialogue but in what form – I will think about it,” the Prime Minister said talking to journalists on December 28. “We have never been against the dialogue with the opposition, but we and I personally are against extremism, any manifestation of extremism would be terminated.”
“They [the opposition] should build up a single platform, in order to make it possible to understand what they want,” Putin said in response to a question on whether he is planning to communicate with oppositionists.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, explained that platforms for dialogue already exist and should be used, suggesting the Public Chamber or the 2020 Strategy. And he downplayed the effectiveness of street protests.
“A dialogue is possible with people who propose some concrete ideas – both within the State Duma or outside it, street protests resemble an army of one soldier. There should be people who have something to say,” Dmitry Peskov told The Moscow News Wednesday by telephone.
“Vladimir Putin has already been openly communicating with social activists and thinkers, but he would never talk to people who are outside the law,” Peskov added.
Indeed, even as authorities encourage dialogue, there are signals that they tolerate the mass rallies grudgingly at best. President Dmitry Medvedev, who earlier proposed a series of measures to liberalize the election process, came out recently with a law to restrict meetings and rallies near the Kremlin, purportedly to preserve the historic value of sites like Vasilyevsky Spusk, Alexandrovsky Sad and Red Square.
Some analysts believe that while some oppositionists for regime change, more moderate forces could be successfully incorporated into the current political system.
“There are types of street opposition that should have their voice in official bodies – we can now see three of them: Westerners (modern intelligentsia), Slavophiles – people who support Russian nationalism but are more [moderate] than [head of the nationalist LDPR Vladimir] Zhirinovsky, and the ecologists – Russia’s ‘green’ party,” Sergei Markov, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party, told The Moscow News.
Markov suggested that the government itself should help form such parties right after the presidential election, in order to make itself more legitimate.
Many in the opposition doubt that the state’s calls for dialogue are sincere.
“In theory the opposition is not against negotiation with the authorities but for now it can’t be done on practice,” Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Solidarnost movement, told The Moscow News. “The authorities haven’t appointed any negotiators to talk to opposition and the Prime Minister Putin seems to ignore the requests of past rallies.”
Eduard Limonov, who was denied registration as a presidential candidate, was even more pessimistic. “Be realistic – there will be no negotiations, authorities consider everything is going along as it should,” he told Yashin during an earlier debate on Ekho Moskvy radio. “Negotiations are usually made under the pressure and for now there is no pressure from opposition. After the third rally any pressure on authorities will be over.”
While some opposition leaders have expressed a willingness for dialogue, others insist on more mass rallies to convey their message.
Liberal opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov told media this week that he and his allies would continue organizing mass public rallies with a view of greater political feedback.
The next mass rally is scheduled for February 4, while political analysts expect more protests ahead of the presidential elections and afterwards. Some 89 percent of protesters on Sakharov Avenue have said they would likely turn up again, according to a poll by the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center.