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Can the Opposition Tap into Class Tensions?

ladakalina010808.jpgYesterday Michael Idov had a piece in the New Republic warning readers not to misunderstand the automobile tariff protest uprisings in Russia as any kind of real political movement – yet.  Outraged citizens who took to the streets over Vladimir Putin’s “characteristically artless” tax hikes to encourage Russians to buy more Lada Kalinas (picture) over better cheaper imports may indicate that “the rules have changed,” but this is no color revolution.  This organic outpouring of discontent with the Putin administration is not being organized by the liberal opposition – but does that necessarily mean the movement won’t evolve into something else?

Idov believes that the political structure of Russia has been altered to the extent that peaceful change is no longer possible:

Were things to come to a head, Russia’s choicewould, once again, be between a palatable autocrat and somethingill-defined but scarier.

Moreimportantly, modern Russia simply lacks the mechanisms for anynon-catastrophic grassroots change. Regional governors, who might havepushed back a few years ago, are now appointed by the Kremlin; theyhave no base to answer to. Parliament delegates have been replaced withUnited Russia’s party-slate pod people, installed anonymously and inbulk. Russian trade unions are powerless. There is, however, OMON, andlots of it. Immediately after the protests in Vladivostok, the Ministry of Internal Affairshas scrapped the plan to downsize its National Guard-like InternalTroops from 200,000 to 140,000 next year: Amidst the economic turmoil,the first industry to receive a shot in the arm was the riot-quashingone.

Thereseems to be a contradictory trend here.  The auto tariff protestors arepolitically meangingless, goes the argument here, and their discontentis not leading toward the proposal of an alternative to Putinism, butrather an expression of economic class tensions.  Yet despite thisimpossibility of grassroots change in this system, the heavyhandedgovernment response has revealed that it is in fact very, very nervousabout potential civil unrest.  Why, then, does the Kremlin take ameaningless protest so very seriously?