Russia Watch: Putin fails to scare Moscow’s middle class

The young protester handing out fake “Go Straight to Jail” tickets just didn’t get it.

In advance of Tuesday’s protest demonstrations, President Putin signed into law a bill raising individual fines for illegal protest 100-fold.

On the eve of the protest, his police raided the homes and apartments of the best known opposition leaders. At the time of Tuesday’s protest, most of these leaders were stuck in lengthy police interrogations.

Then, an hour before marching time, massive and mysterious “denial of service,” or DNS, attacks knocked off the internet Dozhd, Russia’s only news outlets to provide live and sympathetic coverage of the protests.

The idea, apparently, was that Moscow’s middle class was supposed to find all of this really scary.

Instead, a river of humanity turned out – stretching one kilometer down Moscow’s leafy Boulevard Ring Road. Aware of the new fines, protesters were careful not to step on the grass. That would have violated their protest permit.

The scariest thing was the weather – crashing thunder, lightning bolts and then buckets of rain. Across town, a lightning bolt hit five students drinking beer in park. One was knocked into a pond.

Undoubtedly, some protesters wondered if Czar Putin was manipulating the weather.

Last February, 100,000 protesters bundled in parkas and mittens turned out in minus 20 degree Celsius weather to protest Russia’s authoritarian government.

Four months later, a comparable number gave up a summer afternoon at the dacha to march in T-shirts and shorts, walking through rain, blazing sun and then again pouring rain. Unfazed by the results of the March 4 presidential election, they again called for Russia to evolve toward a more open and democratic system.

Separated by only 10 city blocks, the demonstrators in Moscow’s streets and the administrators in the Kremlin compound seemed to inhabit parallel, diametrically opposed universes.

“The Thieves are in the Kremlin; The Girls are in jail,” read one poster, referring to the now three month long detention of three rockers who sang a brief, anti-Putin punk prayer in Moscow’s main cathedral.

Two girls toted orange Styrofoam letters to spell out their personal message to President Putin: “Shoo!”

Standing a few steps from a police line, the young man hawked his “police van tickets.”

One side read: “People against crooks and thieves.” The other had a picture of the kind of police trucks that carried away more than 400 people from a protest last month.

At that protest, protesters, some wearing Guy Fawkes masks, battled police.

This week, it was the police’s turn to play dress up with masks.

In Monday’s early morning raids on the opposition, police wearing black balaclavas and carrying automatic weapons battered down apartment doors. By simulating raids on Colombian drug lords, the Kremlin’s political choreographers apparently wanted to show that Moscow’s middle class opposition leaders are truly dangerous people., an internet news site that gets a lot of leaks from the police, breathlessly reported that one protest leader, Ksenia Sobchak – often called “Russia’s Paris Hilton” — was rousted from her bed wearing only a negligee. (Drool, drool).

Since it was 8 a.m. in the middle of a 3-day holiday weekend, that sounds like normal bedroom attire. Style question: In the Russia of Putin’s third term, should political activists now go to bed in combat boots? Or in running shoes? How should they prepare for that midnight knock on the apartment door? also published photos of envelopes of cash found in the apartments of Ms. Sobchak and Alexei Navalny. It appeared that each leader kept hundreds of thousands of dollars at home.

“Boy was that stupid,” Alex, a Russian-American friend told me over lunch the next day. “Everyone knows that a good locksmith can open those combination home safes in two minutes.”

Alex was in Moscow meeting Russian businessmen who want to invest some of their savings in the United States – a growth business here.

While Sobchak and Navalny laboriously explain to police investigators why they keep cash at home, every adult in Moscow already knows the answer: they don’t trust the system.

Either the banks could fail, as in 1998. Or, more likely, the Kremlin could order banks to freeze accounts of people on their enemies list.

Sobchak and Navalny are merely grains of sand in a broad layer of Russian distrust of banks and the ability of the Russian judicial system to protect property rights.

Ever wonder why tiny Cyprus routinely ranks as Russia’s second largest foreign investing nation? Because Russians park billions of dollars there, using that island in the Mediterranean as a safe haven from government seizures and corrupt court rulings. So far this year, Russia is hemorrhaging $10 billion a month in net capital flight.

Ever wonder why three of the five richest people residing in Britain today are Russians? It can’t be the weather. (Hint: try rule of law and property rights).

According to the Sunday Times Rich List 2012, they are, in descending order: Alisher Usmanov, Roman Abramovich, and Leonard Blavatnik.

Moscow’s masked police raids, the photos of wads of foreign currency, the threats of massive fines on protesters may add up to more than political theater.

Maybe they reflect the insecurity of a president who rules from behind the Kremlin walls, uncomfortably surrounded by a city that on March 4 voted for the opposition.

After a summer break, the next demos will be Sept. 15 and on Oct. 7. The October date is Vladimir’s Putin’s 60th birthday.





James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

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 last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.