Failure and Humiliation in Astrakhan

Instead of being a force to galvanize a new round of opposition enthusiasm, the efforts to protest the recent mayoral election in Astrakhan have served only to emphasize the weakness and indeed dissolution being experienced by the opposition forces.

The Just Russia party promised that every single one of its deputies in Moscow would travel to Astrakhan to rally in support of Oleg Shein, their defeated candidate for Astrakhan mayor who claims fraud denied him the office.  But in the event, less than a third of the deputies (Russian-language link) actually made the trip.

Just Russia, of course, is hardly a focal point of the opposition.  Though it had a place on the ballot last December, none of the opposition leaders endorsed it much less participated in its operations, and it has always been thought of as a Kremlin patsy.

The focus on Astrakhan resulted in major reporting in the Washington Post and the New York Times about the city and its political leanings. But what the reporters found when they looked was disheartening:  Little access to the Internet, and even less interest in the criticism of Putin to be found there.  The people of Astrakhan simply don’t care about democracy or about Shein’s fate, and the arrival of the glitterati from Moscow (like Aleksei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak) came with a resounding thud.

An absurdly small number of people turned out for the Moscow-led protest demonstrations, and many of them had been brought in from outside the city — a practice that was condemned by the opposition leaders when Putin tried it in Moscow.  Putin scoffed at the protests and defied them. Larger demonstrations were organized in support of the status quo.  Soon, local elections officials were turning the tables and accusing Shein himself of fraud.

So all the protests in Astrakhan managed to accomplish was to remind the world how confused, disorganized and isolated the opposition movement is now.  When the opposition leaders say that it doesn’t matter that protest activity has dissolved in Moscow because they are seeking real political power in the remote regions, their claims ring hollow.  There is no groundswell of support in the regions for opposition reform, the regions are where Putin is strongest.

The End of Navalny

Well, he had his fifteen minutes. What more can a person ask?

The March 10th protest in Moscow organized by Aleksei Navalny ended in absolutely humiliating failure. By this time, according to Navalny’s promises when the movement began, we were to be seeing close to a million Russians on the streets of Moscow. Instead, we saw just 10,000 somber, clueless faces. And the opposition lied shamelessly about the attendance, putting for the utterly ridiculous propaganda that 25,000 were present. It was a utter disaster.  But look below the surface and it was even worse.

Look at who, for instance, comprised that tiny, ragtag group:  A hoard of skinheads, neo-Nazis, and Communists was a big chunk.  Their flags dominated the scene.  Remove them, and the pathetic remainder would have seemed little more than rabble.

Even more important, there was no focus to the meeting, no memorable speech, no energy in the crowd at all.  No leadership, no unity of purpose or even of organization. The movement has clearly shown itself unable to sustain its momentum for even five months, much less the five years that will need to pass before another election of significance will happen in Russia.

Media reporting on the movement has been shockingly incompetent.  Instead of reporting aggressively on the movement’s flaws, reporters chose appalling cheerleading. Some of them went so far as to literally lock arms and join the movement they were supposed to be reporting on.

In doing so, these reckless and incompetent reporters — the worst of whom was surely Julia Ioffe of the New Yorker — actually helped Putin consolidate his power.  The helped the movement to ignore its life-threatening faults and therefore helped the movement to avoid focusing on and reforming them.  They made the movement weaker, not stronger, and ultimately helped kill it.

But the biggest problem, of course, was Navalny himself. A perusal of his juvenile Twitter statements, perpetually laced with utterances like “OMFG!“, clearly shows what should have been obvious to all from the start:  This man is no King or Mandela or Ghandi.  He has no political agenda and neither he nor anyone around him is capable of doing the hard work necessary to create and sustain a political party.  All Navalny was capable of doing was creating a small cult of personality on the Internet and bringing them out into the streets for a lark. Soon they got bored, and went home.