Moscow is emotional place: the political mood matters enormously, and over the last year it has changed as dramatically as the seasons. During the winter of 2011- 2012 the opposition mood was euphoric as a spontaneous protest movement promised hope just as Putin announced his return to the Kremlin. That feeling rolled into the spring but then died in the summer, somewhere between the passing of a raft of authoritarian laws and the Pussy Riot sentence.
This winter the mood has been pessimistic and depressed. There are no more large crowds on colorful marches and talk of the Putin era ending anytime before the next election in 2018 has slipped back into the “crazy-talk” category. Those that came out to the streets to protest - the capital’s professionals, intellectuals and educated youth - are confused and anguished as they try to come to terms with the hard fact this could be the beginning of six (maybe twelve) more years of Putin.
“There is a lot of talk again of Russia being somehow cursed,” says Maxim Trudolyubov, the influential editor of the opinion pages of the country’s most important elite newspaper Vedomosti. "The talk is that we are trapped in some perpetual cycle of revolution, stagnation, repression and collapse that will repeat all over again.”
Is the EU actually helping Putin?
This idea that Russia is not on the edge of change, but actually hopeless, is shifting the way the new opposition think about the EU. When the movement began in December 2011 it was if the West did not exist: there were no cries for help, no shrieks against its meddlesome hands and even shudders of irritation when Hillary Clinton made a few statements that suggested the faintest American support. The new opposition, like the regime, seemed tired of what the West wanted. No longer. The vanishing of the emotional wave under the movement has not made them want something from the West, but see the West differently - no longer as a meddler but Putin’s abettor.
Repression has made it clear to leaders like Gennady Gudkov that the West has a role in Russia. Sitting in his office on Alexander Solzhenitsyn Street the barrel shaped former KGB Lieutenant Colonel warns of repression, arrest and crackdowns as an ornate grandfather clock tolls by his desk. “They are coming after everyone that is giving administrative or financial support to the protest movement,” he says. “There is a danger that the country is slipping into a dark period… but they have not crossed the Rubicon from an authoritarian to a dictatorial regime. The West could do something to dissuade them from that.”
Gudkov should know about persecution, and not just because of his career in the KGB. His involvement in the protest movement has cost him his place in the establishment. Last winter he was one of handful active members of parliament from the Kremlin-controlled Just Russia party that joined the street rallies, demonstrating that the gatherings were not only marches for the hipsters and office workers that Russians refer to as “the creative classes.” His presence was one of many little things that made them seem serious.
Gudkov was not only an MP, but also ran a lucrative security firm. Yet after he made attempts to filibuster tough new laws against NGOs, branding anyone that received non-Russian money as “foreign agents,” he was expelled from his seat and forced to get rid of his business in a fire sale. His fall is a warning to other restless MPs not to think they have mandates: but rather than they are there at Putin’s grace. The weeks since have given him plenty of time to think of what the West should be doing to stop Putin crossing that “Rubicon”. Because he thinks they have not been doing enough:
“The West should do nothing against Putin himself – the West needs to move against the thousand families of officials who are plundering Russia and moving to store their assets, their wives, their children, the properties and their fortunes safely in the West. If the EU and the US move to stop these people putting what they have stolen with such ease, in such safety, through a mix of anti-corruption laws, visa restrictions, visa bans, enforced open accounting, only then Russia can be brought back on the path of civilized development. These are not businessmen, these are officials and it will be clear from their income statements in Russia this money is not legitimate."
“Having an elite that can live offshore is what is destroying Russia. It is what is corroding the quality of our cadres, what is corroding the quality of our infrastructure, our pipelines, our healthcare. The West is helping them do this. It is doing nothing. It is closing its eyes and sleeping… Therefore the Europeans are de-facto supporting the Putin system."
“I simply do not understand why the Europeans don’t see how easy this is to do and how much influence they have to do it. They are so vulnerable to EU pressure as they have everything they treasure inside the EU. I understand why bankers don’t do it, I understand why investors don’t do it, I understand why consultants don’t do it, I understand why PR agents don’t it – I just don’t understand why politicians don’t do it. Why? Why is nothing being done?”
The opposition knows what it wants from Europe
As winter begins in earnest and further arrests, sentences and trials harden the regime, a consensus is emerging in the opposition on what it wants from Brussels. They want a mix of laws banning corrupt officials from visiting the EU and freezing their assets (beginning with the Magnistky Act, which would target officials involved in the murder of the attorney Sergey Magnitsky).
Yet these jittery activists feel their message is not being heard in the West at the very moment it can make a difference. The opposition has recently formed a new coordination council, elected through an online vote, which sees pushing the US and especially the EU as one of its key priorities to act on this agenda.
From Moscow the West seems obsessed by a Middle East it cannot control and unable to do the little things that could make a difference in the relationship with Russia. This makes the opposition nervous - especially men like Leonid Volkov, a driving force behind attempts to build the coordination council and close to the preeminent leader Alexey Navalny, who had come under legal and financial pressure as he moves further into politics. He is a worried man:
“The EU needs to prepare for repression. You need to ready for Navalny to go to jail for several years. You need to ready for a lot more arrests with a set of visa-bans, asset freezes and anti-corruption investigations into the officials behind this crackdown who have assets in the EU. You need the Magnitsky Act. This is where they are at their most vulnerable and could be dissuaded out of repression. You need to do this because the Kafka Index… for all the mad things that happen in Russia… is shooting up right now.”
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