Interview

Interview: Moscow in unusual circumstances

On Tuesday we published an interview with former Times correspondent, Tony Halpin on his experiences of journalism in Eastern Europe. In this second part, we turn our focus to the extraordinary events of 2011 to 2012. Josh Black conducted the interview.

Moscow Rally

Sakharov Avenue, 24 December 2011.
Photo by Bogomolov.PL

Were the 2011 and 2012 protests as surprising as they seemed?

Yes, I think they were. At the famous party conference in September 2011, Medvedev committed political suicide in handing over power, but the real knife in the back was when he said the whole thing had been planned from the beginning and the audience realised they’d been played for fools. There was a lot of anger but it was a passive anger until the parliamentary elections and the it was the surprise of United Russia getting 49% that really woke people up. The simple phrase, ‘for free elections’ got people going and I think there was a real fear in the authorities that things weren’t going to go according to the script.

The second demonstration pulled in 100,000 plus, and then everyone went on holiday to lay on a beach. I honestly think that was the factor that slowed the momentum. Russia has an extended holiday over Christmas and New Year and the whole country affectively shuts down. But the opposition went on holiday too, and I remember thinking, if you’re serious about changing your country, the least you can do is give up your beach holiday. Of course, when they came home, they then waited another month and the momentum was lost.

When did the story change from being about the frustrations of ordinary Muscovites and become about the leadership, and particularly about Navalny?

The problem that they faced was one that the opposition faced for years, but while it was small, the question of leadership didn’t matter so much. As soon as you had a hundred thousand very different people, you had a very difficult task trying to keep this disparate group together. The solution they found was the organising committee, which worked well for a while, but like all committees, ran out of steam eventually. One of the paradoxes of Russia is that no-one protests in summer, when it’s warm and there are better things to do.

The reaction to the protests was conceived in haste. During the Medvedev period you had an attempt to embrace the non-parliamentary opposition, and then you had a whole host of measures under Putin aiming to put the lid back on the opposition and cast it as a kind of Western plot.

Is public opinion diverging into liberalism and nationalism again?

Well, you saw what happened last week. The significance of that was that it was in Moscow, and previous race riots were very far away from the centres of power. The situation is clearly very volatile, and people can be brought onto the streets quite easily. I think it’s very telling that the police plan to deal with this trouble is called ‘Volcano’ – it tells you that they think they’re sitting on one. In that respect, Navalny is playing a dangerous game reaching out to that mood. Of course, he argued when I interviewed him that he’s meeting legitimate demands and that if he doesn’t deal with them, someone far nastier will.

How does Navalny strike you as a man and as a politician?

Navalny doesn’t describe himself as a liberal, but clearly makes common cause with liberals, as he does with nationalists. He’s very serious; ill-formed as a politician, though the Moscow elections were good for him, helping him polish his image and message and shaving off some of his more abrasive tendencies. It has to be said, he’s had very few opportunities to develop as a politician. It’s surprising that he’s emerged at all, but he is a very attractive figure in PR terms, with a nice family and an attractive wife. He speaks in a language that people understand, just as Putin did when he came into office.

Is Putin out of touch?

Putin is now very out of touch, and I think that’s part of the problem. He’s well aware that he lives in a hostile capital and probably doesn’t think he has any chance of winning over the under-40’s, who have choice in every area of their life except politics and think, “Well, why can’t I have choice in politics?” He’s remote, he’s older and, having come back to power, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. There’s been a tremendous sense of drift over the last eighteen months and his third term has been characterised mainly by repressive laws.

Who is likely to succeed him as President?

It depends on what conditions are like closer to the time. The people around Putin, like Sechin, are his age. Medvedev has proven he’s loyal, but has he proven himself as a politician? He [Medvedev] told me last year that he would like to stay in politics and wouldn’t rule out running again, so we’ll see. Maybe Shuvalov has ambitions, and of course, Dmitri Rogozin, who is a former Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, might convince Putin that he’s the man.

Of course, the next presidential election is months away from the World Cup. If that’s on course, and Sochi goes well, Putin might want to take the accolades. The thing about Russia is that it’s very unpredictable and you never know what might happen next. There are politicians who see the futility of trying to keep the pressure cooker down and want to find new ways to engage with the opposition, but it’s hard to say what might light the touch paper next.

Finally, what did you make of the negotiations over Syria?

We still don’t know whether the decision to involve OPCW was choreographed in advance or whether it was quick thinking by Lavrov, who is an incredible diplomat and a really smooth operator. Clearly, having taken an awful lot of stick over Syria, Putin now looks much more in touch with public moods. For instance, you can look at the parliamentary vote here, which ruled out military action. Russian diplomats are not renowned for their speed, but they capitalised quickly and in a way that allowed them to continue to pursue their interests in Syria.

Thank you, Tony Halpin.

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