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The Russian Street Erupts By: Kathy Shaidle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 05, 2009

In a rare public display of disaffection, thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow, Vladivostok and other major cities on January 31.

Some Communist Party members carried red Soviet era flags and called for the end of capitalism. Putin’s United Russia Party simultaneously counter-rallied in support of the Kremlin’s efforts to stave off economic collapse.

The United Russia rallies were government sanctioned, of course. The authorities consider it wise to allow the public to “let off steam” about the financial meltdown, given that the alternative is a possible mass uprising, particularly among doctors, teachers and others who rely upon government salaries.

However, unsanctioned protesters were arrested by the dozens in Moscow, including Eduard Limonov of the outlawed National Bolshevik party. Meanwhile, approximately one hundred members of Garry Kasparov’s United Civic Front and other liberal organizations were “attacked by young men wearing surgical masks and wielding flagpoles,” according to a Reuters report.

Ideological opposites, Limonov and Kasparov lead a coalition of scattered opposition groups called “The Other Russia.”

Is such open dissent a sign that Vladimir Putin’s rule is in jeopardy?

“Actually, I laughed when I read about the protests in the newspaper,” Robert Chandler told FrontPage in an exclusive interview. Asked about the apparent resurgence of Bolshevism on Russian streets, the Shadow World author responded that on the contrary, “Marxism-Leninism is out and the Russian Orthodox Church is back in. This satisfies the greater-than-self needs of the Russian people.”

Chandler explains that in Russia, democracy is just a Potemkin village; Russia is still run by the same sorts of people who ruled the old Soviet Union, wielding coercion and patronage to maintain power – power they will do everything to maintain.

Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin agrees. The current ruling structure in Russia “is reminiscent of the Soviet model, where decisions were made at the top, and lower officials stepped on the brakes,” he told Radio Free Europe on February 3. “The situation resembles what we had prior to the Soviet collapse.”

Today, explains Oreshkin, “the vertical has stopped functioning,” referring to the authoritarian political system Russians call the “power vertical.”

“Orders come down from on high, but they are not carried out down below, because the bureaucrats are looking out for themselves.”

A perfect example: the riot police who broke up the recent Vladivostok demonstration had to be flown in from Moscow, 9000 kilometers away, because defiant local officials “had made it clear to the Kremlin that they were not interested in using force to break up the protests.”

This display of independence is a symptom of trouble at the top as well. Considerable tension exists between Russia's “ruling tandem”: Prime Minister Putin (the nation's de facto ruler) and President Dmitry Medvedev, who is serving as a “place holder” until Putin’s inevitable return to that office.

For example, Putin wanted the Vladivostok regional police chief dismissed for refusing to arrest protesters, but Medvedev refused to do so.

Despite the disconcerting sight of those red flags being waved on the streets, David Satter doesn’t believe there is a lot of support among the general public for a revival of communism in the former Soviet Union.

The Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute does feel, however, that “there is a certain amount of nostalgia for communism, particularly among the older generation. Most people in Russia understand that a return to communism is not possible and, although many resent the new capitalism, they are prepared to live with it as long as living standards continue to improve.”

That, of course, is the problem. Like every other country, Russia is suffering thanks to the international economic crisis, and people “who had experienced a touch of prosperity for perhaps the first time in their lives are in fear of losing what little they've gained.”

Satter dismissed the communist demonstrators in Moscow last Saturday as “a hardcore group of communist loyalists who don't trouble the authorities.” On the other hand, the apparent popularity of opposition groups like the “flamboyant” National Bolsheviks are “much more threatening,” Satter explains. That group and others like may indeed have an anti-regime platform but they don’t “promise a return to the Soviet Union. This is why the communist rally was allowed and the National Bolshevik rally was suppressed.”

“These are signs that we could be repeating the experience of the 1990s when many regions sought to move out from under from Moscow's control. Moscow doesn't trust local law-enforcement officials,” says Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. He adds that the Russian elite won’t hesitate to use force to prevent “a colored revolution like in Georgia and Ukraine.”

“All of this does not mean that the Russian government will ignore the complaints of the people or those demonstrating,” Robert Chandler told FrontPage. “I would keep an eye on discontent in Russia but at this time I see a lot of noise and little organization that would influence the status of the Russian government.”

Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury.com. Her new book exposing abuses by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, The Tyranny of Nice, includes an introduction by Mark Steyn.

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