Russian Liberals Growing Uneasy With Alliances
The New York Times
By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
January 28, 2012
About two and a half hours into a recent strategy session of Russia’s new protest movement, someone raised the question that could tear apart the crazy-quilt alliance opposing Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s power.
A Rally for Putin, Enthusiasm Optional (January 29, 2012)
“I’d like to ask on what basis extreme nationalists and ultra-right-wing groups are allowed to participate in this civic movement,” said Aleksandr Bikbov, a mop-haired and bespectacled sociologist. “Especially,” he added, “if they shout antidemocratic slogans like ‘Russia for ethnic Russians’ from the stage.”
Before he could make his case, Mr. Bikbov was drowned out by a mixture of applause and boos, prompting the moderator to remove his question from the discussion. One audience member called him a “liberal fascist.”
As the nascent opposition movement prepares for its next major day of protest, set for Feb. 4, the tentative embrace of an alliance with nationalists has emerged as a defining step — but the consequences of such a move are far from certain.
For more than two decades, Russian liberals have been warning of the dangers posed by nationalism, often portraying it as a greater threat to freedom and stability in this multiethnic country than the soft authoritarianism of Mr. Putin, Russia’s once and probably future president. In recent years, the nationalist movement has become large and increasingly malignant, responsible for a pattern of racist violence against non-Slavs that includes kidnapping, torture and murder. Nationalists have taken responsibility for several beheadings.
But in the effort to drive out Mr. Putin, the opposition, driven by liberal and middle-class Russians, has nonetheless reached out to nationalists, seeing them as a vital bulwark at a critical moment.
“Without cooperation with the nationalists, this movement would not be possible,” said Anatoli Baranov, a longtime leftist activist and a leading voice in the new protest movement. He credited the nationalists’ long experience in opposition politics, adding that cooperation with groups of all political stripes was paramount at this early stage.
“I understand that there are risks,” Mr. Baranov said. “Certainly, among nationalists, there are those I would not work with for hygienic reasons. But many are reasonable.”
How much influence nationalists will come to exert on the new protest movement is unclear. In their balaclavas and combat boots, they were clearly the black sheep at two huge anti-Kremlin protests in December, where their vocal denunciations of immigrants and calls for ethnic purity were often drowned out by chants of “Fascism will not pass!”
But it is clear that they have become a force in Russia that is politically perilous to ignore. Long before protests became fashionable among members of Russia’s urban middle class, who turned out in droves for the December demonstrations, nationalists had the monopoly on street theater, organizing protests that drew thousands.
Moreover, their ideas have a following that extends beyond the office buildings and hipster cafes of Moscow and into the more conservative Russian heartland, where the success or failure of the protest movement could be decided.
Such is the popularity of nationalism here — often rallying around the slogan “Russia for ethnic Russians” — that Mr. Putin has himself at times played at co-opting the nationalist agenda for political gain.
But recently, Mr. Putin has taken a different tack, most likely seeing a chance to hurt the protest movement. In an essay about the nationalist question published last week, Mr. Putin assailed “provocateurs and enemies” who he said were trying to “rip out Russia’s core with false talk of the rights of ethnic Russians to self-determination and racial purity.”
“I am deeply convinced that attempts to propagate the idea of building a Russian ‘national’ mono-ethnic state contradict all of our thousand-year history,” Mr. Putin wrote in the essay, which was published on his Web site.
With the nationalist presence, an anxiousness has emerged within the protest movement that has become more evident with the fading euphoria of the first demonstrations. Many liberals said they had no choice but to work with the nationalists if only to uphold the democratic nature of the movement.
“We do not have a mechanism for excluding people who are legally allowed to be around us in the protest movement,” said Lev A. Ponomaryov, a veteran human rights activist. “Though it is unpleasant for me and my colleagues that they are there, this is a fact.”
Mr. Ponomaryov said he initially resisted the inclusion of nationalist leaders, but relented when members agreed to sign a pact denouncing xenophobia and racism. A delegation of 10 nationalists will join an equal number of representatives from left-wing and liberal groups and a delegation of the politically unaffiliated in the leadership committee of the so-called Citizens Movement, which will coordinate future actions. There are limits to the liberals’ tolerance, however. When an avowed white supremacist, Maksim Martsinkevich, nicknamed the Hatchet, made the top three in an online vote for speakers at the second protest, organizers stepped in, denying him the microphone.
Others have threatened to break away if any of the nationalists are allowed to remain. Several created a Facebook group called “Russia Without Hitler,” which has more than a thousand members. One of the group’s founders, Konstantin Borovoi, a businessman, has formed a splinter group that plans to hold its own protest on Feb. 4.
For their part, nationalist leaders have been keen to avoid inflammatory statements, describing themselves as political moderates capable of compromise.
“We are trying to maintain diplomatic relations,” said Vladimir Tor, a nationalist leader who has taken a leading role in the protest movement. “It is as if we are all in the same life raft, and whether we like it or not we are forced to find rational solutions to this crisis.”
He added, “We are not in anyway forgoing our basic values.”
The nationalists’ agenda has been given a lift by Aleksei Navalny, the anticorruption crusader who is the undisputed leader of the movement. In the past, he has espoused nationalist views, particularly on immigration and the volatile, mostly Muslim North Caucasus region, that make his more liberal supporters perspire. In November, he was criticized for speaking at an annual demonstration of nationalists called the Russian March.
Many liberals insisted that the inclusion of the nationalists was a temporary arrangement that would be adjusted if the movement gained major traction. The question is who would stand to lose most if the nationalists left.
“A portion of society that considered dialogue with radical nationalists unacceptable now views them differently,” said Oleg P. Orlov, director of the prominent human rights group Memorial. “Does this mean there will be an increase in support for such groups? This is a danger.”