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Russian Opposition Gains Steam

The continuing saga of last week’s Russian elections had three important developments over the weekend–one expected, the other two coming as a bit of a surprise. The expected event was the protest rally in Moscow on Saturday that drew tens of thousands. (The Russian police say the crowd was at 20,000; organizers said it was 100,000.)

The rally was planned and approved ahead of time, though opposition activists are threatening more such rallies to protest the widespread election fraud of which Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, stands accused. But the other two developments suggest this vocal opposition to the Putin administration will continue.

The first is that the Russian Orthodox Church spoke up on behalf of the protesters:

“It is evident that the secretive nature of certain elements of the electoral system concerns people, and there must be more public control over this system,” said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the most prominent spokesman for the church, in remarks to a widely followed Orthodox news website. “We must decide together how to do this through civilized public dialogue.”

The pronouncement by Father Chaplin, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department of Church and Society Relations, was especially significant because he is often criticized as an apologist for the Kremlin. He has made several conservative statements in the past year, including a call for an Orthodox dress code in Russia, that have stirred controversy.

Father Chaplin told the New York Times last night that his church is willing to act as a representative of those who bring evidence of election tampering and will raise the issue with the administration. As the story notes, the church has a relationship with the government that has inspired criticism over the years. The church is known to be closer to outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev than to Putin, though it’s doubtful Putin’s planned return to the presidency next year has anything to do with the church’s decision to speak out. More than anything, it suggests the tide of public opinion has turned sharply against the administration.

Also this weekend, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov announced he will challenge Putin in next year’s presidential election. Prokhorov, who also owns the New Jersey Nets, was elected leader of the Pravoe Delo (“Right Cause”) party this past summer, promising to work long days and be honest with the electorate. “Strength is in the Truth,” went a popular campaign slogan for Pravoe Delo. But from the beginning, Prokhorov worked with the Kremlin not only on its election platform, but right down to the slate of candidates it would put up for election to the Duma. And in this was the genius. The party’s principles sounded an awful lot like other opposition parties–though ones without billionaire bankrollers. Pravoe Delo wasn’t an opposition party. It simply mimicked one in a much louder voice. Thus the Kremlin had the appearance of electoral competition from a bunch of would-be yes men.

True to form, when Prokhorov began to veer from the Kremlin’s personnel preferences, the ruling party’s chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, made his displeasure known and Prokhorov quit. He was furious: “To all followers who supported me, I call on you to quit this party bought by the Kremlin,” he told his party afterwards. Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center speculated that Prokhorov was inviting more trouble. “I don’t think he risks ending up in jail, but he’s still got business in Russia and he may find some obstacles,” Lipman told Bloomberg Businessweek. “Something that was smooth before could become difficult.”

This election bid will be the test, but Prokhorov is probably in a stronger position with regard to his safety now that the Russian Orthodox Church has defended the opposition. Prokhorov may not be in a stronger position politically, however, since he now has no party (and anyway Pravoe Delo received less than one percent of the vote last week). On the other hand, since he is the only fresh face in the election, he may be able to channel the support of the dissatisfied public. The question now will be whether Putin is able to subdue public anger at United Russia, or face an unexpectedly difficult path back to the presidency.



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