Putin Finally Talks With the Opposition
Published: September 25, 2013 (Issue # 1779)
The recent meeting of the Valdai Club was the first time President Vladimir Putin met and spoke directly with members of the “nonsystemic opposition,” that is, the political forces that have been denied the chance of participating in the country’s political life throughout Putin’s time in power. Among the international gathering of 200 politicians and pundits were four public figures who had taken part in the mass protests on Bolotnaya Ploshchad and Prospekt Akademika Sakharova: Gennady Gudkov, Ksenia Sobchak, Ilya Ponomaryov and yours truly. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was also invited, but he was unable to attend because of travel restrictions placed on him by the Kirov court that allowed him to go free pending his appeal on embezzlement charges.
The situation was different under Dmitry Medvedev when he was president. Immediately after the street protests in December 2011, Medvedev initiated political reforms, and in early 2012 he held a lengthy meeting with the opposition at his residence in Gorki-9. The meeting focused on the specifics of the political reforms demanded by protesters and a Kremlin working group began hammering them out in cooperation with the nonsystemic opposition.
The result was the unrestricted registration of political parties, now numbering 72 in Russia, the direct election of governors (albeit with filters) and changes to the next election of the State Duma: a 5 percent barrier for parties and the return of single-mandate districts.
At the time, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin several times raised the possibility of opposition leaders, dubbed “Decembrists 2.0,” meeting with then-Prime Minister Putin to discuss the protesters’ demands. But Putin refused.
Once he returned to the Kremlin, Putin decided to crack down on the opposition. He pushed through a host of repressive laws and had criminal charges pressed against 27 of the Bolotnaya Ploshchad protesters for causing a “mass riot,” when, in fact, nothing of the sort ever occurred. Many of them have spent more than a year in detention and trials against 12 of them are now underway in the Moscow City Court.
However, the unexpected degree of voter support that opposition leader Alexei Navalny managed to garner after a very short mayoral campaign and the continuing street demonstrations have shown Putin that the protest movement is alive, well and growing in strength. By taking a tougher line, the authorities are only exacerbating the problems and rallying the opposition. Kremlin-approved opposition parties are losing support, and in the recent regional elections United Russia’s share of the electorate sunk to a near-record low — matched only by its previous low in December 2011 — and even the votes it reported this time were thanks to new instances of electoral fraud.
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