With the holiday stupor nearly upon us, the Russian opposition movement is sinking into the state of suspended animation that besets most of the drinking Russian world between Dec. 31 and Jan 14. Although small rallies and pickets persist, nobody is talking much anymore about the rigged elections that threw a bucket of ice water onto Russia's lethargic electorate at the beginning of December. The main issue now, the one still getting any mass of people onto the streets, is the call to free the political prisoners, who are having to spend New Year's Eve on a rank mattress in one of Russia's holding cells.
The token martyr of this revolution (since that's what people are calling it now, somewhat prematurely) has been Sergei Udaltsov, the 34-year-old leader of the Left Front opposition group. If you add up all the days he has spent behind bars in 2011 on phony charges like failing to heed police instructions, cursing in public or jaywalking, it comes to about 120, a third of the year. Not quite Nelson Mandela, but still. The last time he was arrested was on Election Day, Dec. 4, as he was heading toward an opposition rally. The charge? Jaywalking. He has not been out of custody since, and for most of that time, he has been on a hunger strike. The poor guy already looks like an anorexic ghost.
The state's refusal to let him go is not just appalling but stupid. They are making him into a martyr, and as Fred Weir pointed out this week, that gives him political clout he just wouldn't otherwise have. But the opposition's attempt to free him is stupider by far. They are marching straight into a trap.
Their chosen tactic in the past week has been a campaign against the judge who sentenced Udaltsov on Dec. 25 to another 10 days in jail. A 26-year-old brunette who looks a lot like a young Sarah Palin, Judge Olga Borovkova seems to handle more than her share of the "political" cases against the protestors. In retaliation, some of Udaltsov's supporters posted her photograph and home address online, suggesting that people should rally outside her house.
The address turned out to be wrong, but that didn't matter. Borovkova still got a full security detail and has stopped appearing at work, apparently for fear of her life. This is ridiculous, of course. I haven't met anyone among the protestors capable of doing more than throwing a foam pie in her face. But it makes a bit more sense if you consider the government's dilemma.
Vladimir Putin, just three months before taking a third term as president, is facing a wave of non-violent resistance to his rule unlike anything he's ever seen. Polls suggest that millions are prepared to take to the streets, while trust in the police, the courts, the Kremlin and in Putin himself are sinking to all-time lows. Much more than the protestors, the state is now in need of martyrs.
As Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin adviser turned dissident, pointed out in a frightening analysis of the situation this week, the KGB element in Putin's circle is coming to the fore because of the political crisis. Sergei Ivanov, Putin's buddy from the KGB, has been promoted to the post of Kremlin chief of staff. Sergei Naryshkin, another KGBshnik, has been made the speaker of the Duma. Dmitry Rogozin, an ultra-nationalist, has been made deputy premier in charge of the military industrial complex. And so on.
If anyone is hankering for a quick and ruthless crackdown, it is this group of Kremlin roughnecks. But they need an excuse. They cannot arrest all the opposition leaders without giving them more credibility. And they certainly cannot disperse a crowd of 100,000 people, like the one that gathered on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue on Dec. 24, without a bloodbath that would inexorably throw them into the pit with Gaddafi, Kim Jong il and Lukashenko.
But imagine for a second if something happened to The Honorable Judge Borovkova. Imagine if, heaven forbid, she were to disappear tomorrow, only to be found a few days later in a forest outside Moscow with some political message pinned to her chest. Long live the revolution, or some such. The state-television channels would plaster her endearing young face all over the evening news. A manhunt would begin. Clues would be found linking her fate to the opposition leaders. All of them would be rounded up and arrested. All future opposition rallies could easily be banned as extremist. And most importantly, the government would have its martyr. A young beacon of Russian law who fell victim to the bloodthirsty, CIA-funded radicals opposed to Putin. The millions now sitting on the fence would be appalled, and would rally around the government. Good night, revolution.
Ilya Ponomaryov, the Duma Deputy and Left Front member at the forefront of the resistance, completely fails to realize this. On Thursday, Dec. 29, he led a rally of a few hundred people on Moscow's Pushkin Square, calling for the release of political prisoners. One of the five demands of the rally, which Ponomaryov then posted on his blog, was the creation of a "blacklist" of judges handling political cases. From the position of the Kremlin hardliners, any such blacklist offers an easy way out. They wouldn't need to start a short victorious war in the Caucasus. They wouldn't need to impose a state of emergency. Just one token victim in a black cassock would be reason enough to crack down.
Follow Simon Shuster on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shustry