The Mystery of Putin’s Intolerance for Protests

By almost any account, the Russian opposition is fragmented, persecuted, and poorly organized.  Why, then, does the Kremlin leadership put so much energy into quashing their occasional marches of a few hundred people with such brutality and intolerance?  It’s a reoccurring question without a good answer.  Here goes Simon Schuster’s most recent observations of this contradiction in action on the Huffington Post:

The crowd was starting to thin when I ran into another old-time dissident, Sergei Kovalyov, who had helped organize the protest (insofar as it had any organization at all). He is 80, he was heading home, and said he understood perfectly well why the government was acting this way. “The authorities simply can’t back down, because they understand better than you or I that their power is not legitimate, and if they show any weakness in the face of reason, they won’t survive. It’s very simple. If they want to hold on to power, they need to act this way.”

I can’t say I agree with him. Could it really cost Putin that much to allow a few thousand protestors to rally in Moscow, even if they demand his resignation, even if they make the evening news? Isn’t the absurd comedy of the blood drive more embarrassing than allowing some semblance of political debate? It has to be. And the fact that his government doesn’t realize this suggests a level of paranoia and self-doubt that only a guy like Khrushchev could match. Then again, it seems like only a weak system would go this far to repress debate, to make sure that it’s voice is the only one getting through. So maybe Kovalyov is right. It seems clear, in any case, that not even the frailest gesture of protest gets to see daylight in Moscow today. That says a lot about the withered state of the opposition, sure, but I think it says more about Putin’s leadership.