Monday, February 14, 2005

"We're With Putin!"

Yesterday, while trying to cross Tverskaya Street (formerly Gorky Street), to meet our friend Alice--who has braved the Russian winter to visit us from New York, and is now staying in Alla Pugachova's apartment building (Muscovites are like New Yorkers when it comes to having the best address, it seems)--we found the perehod was zakrit. A militiaman pointed out the large demonstration which had closed down Tverskaya. Indeed, there were some 30,000 people with Russian flags, and banners reading "We're with Putin!", "Stability," and the most persuasive, "Putin--Our President!" It was a march organized by the United Russia party, Putin's own answer to America's Republicans, dedicated to the preservtion of the Russian federation from disintegration.

The march took place at the exact same moment that Russian truckers were closing down the ring road with a "go slow" protest about pensions and benefits--especially fuel prices. The evening news covered the pro-Putin march, thus displacing news of protests. Thus marches on the "Babushka Revolution" sparked by benefit cuts to elderly pensioners, and used by the communists as a very effective anti=Putin organizing tool.

Putin's popularity has plunged over 20 points in the last few weeks, and more and more protesters are taking to the streets--not all of them on the Government payroll. As more and more people are less and less afraid to voice their opposition, Putin's carefully crafted siloviki revival stands a chance of stalling. The danger, unfortunately, is that the Communists--old, unreconstructed, and openly anti-semitic as well as anti-America--are the only opposition force well-organized enough to take advantage of the situation.

What Russia needs is a "loyal opposition" like those in Western democracies, as a safety valve, a feedback mechanism, and an alternative to yet another bloody revolt in Russia. Reform, not revolution, will be the key to progress here, and to a peaceful country with a growing economy.

Henry Kissinger and Citibank Chairman Sanford Weill (they have branches here) were photographed meeting with Putin in the papers today. This is all part of the runup to the US-Russian summit in ten days. It is certain that Bush and Putin will have a lot to discuss in Bratislava. If Putin wants to make a better impression on Americans, he might order the release of Khodorkovsky, Yukos's founder, from prison -- as a gesture of progress, prior to the meeting...