MOSCOW — The long months of political protest in Russia last winter and spring against the rule of Vladimir Putin were followed by a summer of relative quiet from the opposition. Even the recent return of demonstrators to the streets during a Sept. 15 rally left many wondering if the movement to oust Putin that looked potent early this year is in crisis.
Among those with doubts about the street protests is Vladimir Milov, 40, chairman of the opposition party Democratic Choice. From 1997 to 2002 he worked in the government, ending up as deputy energy minister. He joined the opposition ranks in 2007 and in recent years published, with fellow activist Boris Nemtsov, several anti-Putin reports including “Putin. Results” and “Putin. Corruption.” He questions the goals and tactics of the recent demonstration against the Russian president.
What do you think of the opposition rally?
This rally gave a clearly negative answer to the most important question: whether the opposition movement can make a comeback after the long summer pause. The protest movement we see today quite visibly lacks the dynamics, the mood and the drive we witnessed last December. The crowd was not significantly smaller, but many of those who came were bitterly disappointed because they didn’t hear from their leaders any distinct indication where to go from now.
What should the opposition be doing?
The key political issue in our country is the struggle for the presidency. The most obvious potential opposition candidate of 2012, Alexei Navalny — who became extremely popular last fall — offered no reasonable excuse why he didn’t seek a nomination for the March presidential poll except a lame: Why bother if the authorities won’t let me get registered [as a presidential candidate] anyway?
Doesn’t the opposition have a plan of action?
All they have for a plan is a very simple formula: Let’s lead a million people out into the streets, and that will scare the hell out of Putin. He will run away, and we will grab power. But even if they get a sufficient number of people out in the street, they don’t know what to do next. All they can do is chant their old anti-Putin incantations instead of offering a program of action.
Why did so many people take part in the protests last December?
Last December when Putin’s United Russia party, after all the ballot falsifications, still failed to preserve its constitutional two-thirds majority in the Duma [the national parliament’s lower house] ... people for the first time in years sensed the long-forgotten taste of victory. But the opposition leaders continued to fight the same old battle demanding the cancellation of the Duma vote results instead of taking advantage of this new dynamic and finally challenging Putin in the main battle for Russia — the presidential poll in March.
How big is the potential damage to the opposition movement from the Kremlin crackdown over the summer?
I think the opposition exaggerates the scope of repressions. Putin, of course, resorted to some repression after the turbulent political season, which was to be expected. But all the protest leaders are free. They can travel around the country and carry on with their political activities. The problem is not in what Putin is doing. It is in what the opposition leaders are not doing.
What do you make of the third-term Putin [who served as president for two terms beginning in 2000]?
The third-term Putin is a somewhat lost Putin. In politics, on the one hand, he cracks down on the opposition. On the other hand, he liberalizes the registration of political parties and candidates for all kinds of elections. We see the same ambiguity in economics. I think for Putin being in power has become a self-goal. He is a man stuck in the past who is leading his country nowhere.
Is something like a revolution possible in Russia?
An overwhelming number of Russian people don’t want a revolution. That means that if a revolution scenario is to unfold, the Kremlin will have a huge potential to suppress it based on massive popular support.
Does that mean that Putin’s position is solid?
Putin’s position is strong but not dynamic. His support is going down after the election too.... He is still in power for lack of a strong alternative. This alternative must emerge from the struggle for power in regional and local elections of all levels in the next few years.
What role do you see for mass rallies?
Mass rallies can only add momentum to the hard work of organizing to create the foundation and background for success. If you create a possibility for people to come and vote freely and if this chance is taken away from them, only then can a million-strong mass rally become an effective weapon.
Do the opposition leaders agree that the movement is experiencing a crisis?
They must already be seeing that something has gone seriously wrong with the movement, and they scheduled their next big protest rally for December. If they don’t change their ways and regard elections as the primary tool in power struggle, people will turn away from them. We don’t need leaders who are shy or afraid to take responsibility.
How do your colleagues take your criticism?
Unfortunately, they took my criticism very badly and accused me of having been recruited by the Kremlin. I don’t have any relations with them now. I think these people must leave the political stage and engage themselves in writing stories and blogs, exposing corruption schemes and so on, and leave the political work to those who want to struggle for power in earnest.
You, for example?
Why not? I could make a very good opposition candidate. I am not afraid of responsibility. I have a professional background and can talk to voters about things that really worry them rather than about the constitution and democracy.