October 12, 2007
Russia: Searching for the Opposition
BY Victoria Gamburg
Presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky addresses supporters at a rally in St. Petersburg.
Watch a clip from Grigory Yavlinsky's rousing speech to opposition supporters in St. Petersburg.
Editor's Note: This fall marks the beginning of election season in Russia. But in the land of Putin, it's all beginning to look like a foregone conclusion: President Vladimir Putin will name his own successor or he might be brazen enough to retain power by becoming prime minister. As The Moscow Times puts it, the presidential race is "more akin to a scripted professional wrestling bout than a clean fight."
Nevertheless, a coalition of anti-Putin opposition groups recently gathered in Moscow to choose their candidate, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, for next spring's presidential election.
FRONTLINE/World producer and reporter Victoria Gamburg ("Moscow's Sex and the City") is covering the election. Her story will appear in our television broadcast this winter. "Small opposition conferences and rallies have been held around the country for months now," says Gamburg, "but given the pro-Kremlin slant of most media here, very little of this activity appears in the news." Last month, she witnessed a particularly big demonstration held in St. Petersburg and spoke with another important opposition figure, Grigory Yavlinsky.
Last month, on the anniversary of the start of Nazi Germany's siege of Leningrad, I filmed a ragtag coalition of pro-democracy political parties and civic groups who had gathered downtown in the city once again known as St. Petersburg. People had come together to protest the construction of Gazprom Tower, a 1,000-foot skyscraper nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower, which is planned to go up across the river from the city's historic center. The date of the protest was significant because protestors see the tower as another kind of invasion -- a symbol of the Kremlin's growing arrogance and authoritarianism.
The date of the protest was significant because protestors see the tower as another kind of invasion -- a symbol of the Kremlin's growing arrogance and authoritarianism.
Under Putin, Russian regions no longer elect their own governors, opposition parties are disappearing, television stations have been re-federalized and press freedoms have been curtailed sharply. Opponents of the tower say the massive, steel-and-glass spiraling office building will destroy St. Petersburg's carefully planned 18th-century cityscape, which contains numerous masterpieces of baroque and neoclassical architecture. If built, the tower will be 15 times the height of the Winter Palace, the tzars' former royal residence.
Supporters of the tower, like St. Petersburg's Putin-appointed mayor, argue that the tower will be a fitting symbol of the "new Russia," whose coffers are growing rapidly thanks to record-high oil prices.
Flanked by city police and federal troops in riot gear, 5,000 protesters marched peacefully through St. Petersburg's historic center, chanting, "Petersburg will not surrender," "Russia without Putin" and "No police state." Anti-tower protestors included former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, a harsh critic of the Kremlin and one of the leaders of Drugaya Rossiya (the Other Russia), an anti-Putin, pro-democracy coalition.
Kasparov was just nominated to be Drugaya Rossiya's candidate in next spring's presidential election. It is generally accepted that whomever Putin selects as his successor will be the victor next March, but that is not stopping Kasparov and other opposition candidates from trying to make a showing.
Whomever Putin selects as his successor will almost certainly be the victor next March, but it has not stopped Kasparov and other opposition candidates from making a showing.
Grigory Yavlinsky, a leading liberal politician and a familiar figure from 1990s Russian politics, is also running in the presidential race and was among the protestors in St. Petersburg. Yavlinsky is the leader of one of Russia's last remaining liberal parties, Yabloko (or "Apple"). Yavlinsky ran for president in 1996 and 2000. He declined to run against Putin in 2004 because of alleged vote rigging by Putin's party. Since 1996 he has seen his polling numbers steadily decline and his party no longer holds seats in parliament. Yavlinsky refuses to join Kasparov's Drugaya Rossiya in part because of the coalition's willingness to work with nationalists and neo-communists to achieve its goals.
Putin's four-year, two-term presidency expires in 2008, but most observers expect that he will find a way to stay in power -- either by running for parliament and becoming prime minister or by rewriting the constitution to allow for additional consecutive presidential terms.
Though Yavlinsky has little chance of winning the upcoming presidential election, he has decided to run again. This summer, I met Yavlinsky in Moscow and asked him why he was running. In fluent English, he joked about hoping to hire George Bush's campaign managers from Florida, and added, "How do you campaign with no money and no access to the television news media? I just want to survive."
He told me he believes that in a year the constitution will be rewritten and parties like his will be eliminated.
I asked a man in his early thirties if he thought Yavlinsky had a chance at the presidency. "Yavlinsky is one of the most strategically minded politicians in Russia," he answered. "He'll be the one to laugh last."
Yavlinsky doesn't think that the West can help Russia. He points to the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, Russia's Slavic ally, as the event that ended Western influence in Russia. "Only we can help ourselves. All the events of the '90s happened because the West served as an example. There is no example now. The bombing of Belgrade was the moment that it wasn't possible to look to the West as an example anymore."
At the protest march, I asked a man in his early thirties if he thought Yavlinsky had a chance at the presidency. "Yavlinsky is one of the most strategically minded politicians in Russia," he answered. "He'll be the one to laugh last. When democracy comes to Russia, he'll be greatly sought after."
"Do you have democracy now in Russia?" I asked.
"No, we have a police state, maybe not a fully developed one, but we're halfway there, that's certain."
Another man, who looked about 60, said, "The epoch of Yavlinsky is just beginning. Yavlinsky is the honor and conscience of our country. He's one of the only people who can save us from catastrophe."
Catastrophe is part of the historical memory of the people of St. Petersburg. Nazi Germany's siege of Russia's second largest city began on September 8, 1941, cutting off the city from the rest of the world and halting deliveries of food and fuel. When the Soviet Army finally pushed the Germans back, 900 days into the siege, it's estimated that more than a million city residents had died from starvation, bombings and disease.
Former Russian chess master, Garry Kasparov, accepting Drugaya Rossiya's nomination.
Earlier on this anniversary day, I filmed a motley procession of government dignitaries, including Yavlinsky, members of Putin's United Russia party, and hardline communists, as they placed flowers at the memorial to victims of the World War II blockade. The staid ceremony was being filmed for the evening news by Russia's federally owned television channels. After the ceremony, I followed Yavlinsky and his entourage into the memorial's underground museum. Though Yavlinsky is an official presidential candidate, none of the television crews followed him. Along with a cameraman hired by Yavlinsky's party to document the event, I filmed alone as Yavlinsky looked at artifacts from the war and a tour guide recounted the horrors of the blockade. Hitler saw no place for the city (then called Leningrad) in his mad plan for Europe, so he commanded the Wehrmacht (Germany's Armed Forces) "to wipe the city off the face of the earth."
No European country in the 20th century has seen more upheaval and bloodshed than Russia, nor has any endured such a long succession of dictators. Despite the hardships caused by Russia's transition to capitalism in the early 1990s, the past two decades have been her most hopeful. But even as the economy booms, political opposition is being stifled. In the summer, Yavlinsky told me, "I know the history of my country very well, and I know what is possible. I'm happy for the freedoms we've had these past 20 years."
As I continue to cover an election this fall whose outcome most think is predetermined, I don't know whether other voices in Russia will find a way to make themselves heard.
Victoria Gamburg was born in St. Petersburg and raised and educated in the U.S. Working in both documentary and fiction, she's made a number of films about Russia that explore its turbulent transition from communism. When not traveling and filming in Europe and Russia, she lives in New York.
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