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After mass rally Russian elites are looking for way out of crisis

December 26, 2011, 16:20 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, December 26 (Itar-Tass) —— The Opposition’s rally For Fair Elections, held in Moscow’s Andrei Sakharov Avenue last Saturday, was not only the largest protest action by the Opposition over the past 20 years, but also the most politicized one. Alongside the demands for new, fair elections it addressed the prime minister, one of the presidential candidates, Vladimir Putin, with calls for resignation. This time the demands were as loud as never before. So far the authorities have reacted to this mass demonstration by the Opposition, a second in December, not at the level of the highest officials. The elites are still looking for a way out of the crisis. Although the authorities have already made some concessions, it looks like they do not know what steps to take in strategic terms, experts say.

According to some estimates, Saturday’s rally gathered up to 100,000 – more than the first one that was held in Bolotnaya Square on December 10. The Opposition was quite pleased with the results and promised to stage another such demonstration in February – if the authorities ignore the rally’s demand for another parliamentary campaign, liberalization of election legislation and the resignation of the head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov.

Analysts believe that the authorities responded to the first protest rally with a political reform, which President Medvedev proposed on December 22 in his last message to the Federal Assembly. The reform is confined to two steps – restoration of the direct elections of governors, simpler rules of the registration of political parties, cancellation of signup campaigns for registration in the elections to the State Duma and regional legislative assemblies, reform of the principles of forming the State Duma, reduction in the number of signatures required for the registration of a presidential candidate and greater representation of parties in the election commissions. To a large extent the point at issue is a return to the situation that President Putin had changed in the early 2000s for the sake of strengthening the vertical chain of command and stability in society.

Last Saturday’s rally has drawn response only from the entourage of the top officials so far. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s press-secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has promised that the authorities have turned an attentive ear to the protesters, although these were a majority. As Peskov told the AFP news agency, Putin still enjoys support from a majority of Russians. He said the authorities had heard the demands that were voiced in the course of the protest demonstrations For Fair Elections. The people have the right to express their opinion, he said.

However, Peskov remarked at the same time that those who were taking to the streets to demonstrate these days still constituted a minority.

Presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station last Sunday he hoped that the Medvedev-initiated law easing the registration of political parties may start working as early as February 2012. Dvorkovich said that the president should not bow to the protesters’ demands. “If the law is approved at the first session, then it may take effect in February,” the presidential aide said.

Dvorkovich called for creating a new right-of-center party that would reflect the interests of “a considerable share of citizens.”

“The way I see it, there should be created a right-wing party, not on the basis of the existing one, which has lost all authority and reputation, but from scratch,” Dvorkovich said.

After speaking at Saturday’s rally former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, told the daily Kommersant consultations on creating a new party had already begun. His statement was a true sensation. His name was absent from the original list of speakers. On the day of the rally Kudrin published a lengthy article to the effect the protesters should demand liberalization of the political system.

The former finance minister demanded that the CEC chief, Vladimir Churov, must tender his resignation and declare the need for a re-run of the State Duma elections, because there is another economic crisis on the horizon. He called on the Kremlin to enact new legislation on political parties and register those parties. He also advised the demonstrators to elect a group of delegates who would draw up a list of demands to the authorities to ensure “the standoff should not end with another revolution.”

“His statement at the rally was radical. It seemed to be made by a habitual liberal protester, who has never been part of the ruling establishment,” says the RBC Daily.

Experts have described as very telling the very fact that Alexei Kudrin, whom Putin had been calling a friend, on December 24 showed up at a rally where “Russia without Putin” was one of the catch phrases. In their opinion, Kudrin’s presence in Sakharov Avenue and his readiness to take part in building a new party are evidence that the elite has been trying to find a way out of the stalemate following the December 4 elections.

“The people turned out to demonstrate against the results of the State Duma elections, but while on the face of it they are protesting against the rigging that reportedly occurred on December 4, in reality they have in mind Putin’s third presidency,” says political scientist Boris Makarenko, quoted by the daily Kommersant. The invitation to a dialogue that Kudrin voiced means that the authorities have traditionally been taking only correct tactical steps. “In strategic terms they have no options yet,” Makarenko said.

Some experts, quoted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, predict several likely scenarios and suggest several behavior strategies the Opposition and the authorities may chose to follow.

The authorities have not yet devised a strategy of response to the changed political reality, complains the head of the Effective Policy Fund, Gleb Pavlovsky.

“The country’s leadership has so far made responses only to the current developments – without any attempts to take a step away to look at them from a distance. To a large extent they have been acting randomly. The Kremlin and the government believe that they are confronted with a political Opposition. However, as the expert remarks, “those who take to the squares these days are Putin’s children, children of his system.”

“They do not wish a different parliamentary model, but they demand fair play,” he said. Pavlovsky is certain the authorities “should devise fair rules of play and clean their technologies and human resources.”

The rally in Sakharov Avenue put in front of the former tandem some very inconvenient questions. However, the demand for Putin’s resignation looks utterly unrealistic, the chief of the Center of Political Information, Alexei Mukhin, says with certainty. “Putin’s resignation is nonsense. It is impossible to take out of the political system its backbone element. The system will be thrown off balance and the country would go out of control.”

The deputy general director of the Political Technologies Center, Alexei Makarkin, believes that a round-table conference of the authorities and the opposition would be the optimal way out. Alexei Kudrin might serve as a go-between, the expert believes.

Only in case of speeding up reform the authorities would retain chances of getting ahead of the Opposition. A member of the science council at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Nikolai Petrov, believes that Putin’s return to the position of the nation’s formal leader would make long-awaited reforms possible.

“Before, Putin blocked them, for he was rightly worried they might weaken his position. Any change plays into the hands of the formal leader, while all leverage has remained in the hands of Putin – an informal leader.” Now Putin will feel no such fears, the analyst says. But the political situation has changed significantly, too. “Whether the system will manage to emerge from the crisis will depend on how effective and realistic these reforms will prove.”

Analysts believe that a hard line is the least probable of all scenarios. “Theoretically it is possible that Putin may opt for this, but in practice this means that he does not have the safety margin,” says Makarkin. “There is no demand for a strong hand in society and taking a harder line is very difficult. Neither the regime, nor society are prepared for this.”

MOSCOW, December 26