As Vladimir Putin’s regime tries to hold on to power in the face of Russia’s largest pro-democracy protests in 20 years, one of its tactics has been to try to co-opt the opposition. Apart from its noticeable but not game-changing concessions—the return of direct gubernatorial elections and the easing of registration requirements for political parties and presidential candidates—the Kremlin is holding out the prospect of “talks” with the protesters. At least two potential negotiators have emerged from the government’s side: Alexei Kudrin, former minister of finance and a personal friend of Putin’s (who maintains regular contact with him), and Vladimir Lukin, the federal human rights ombudsman. Both have publicly signaled their willingness to facilitate “dialogue” between the Kremlin and its opponents.
Many in the top ranks of the opposition appear ready to reciprocate. Solidarity activist Ilya Yashin has called for a “roundtable” styled on the kind used in Poland in 1989; left-wing Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev suggested forming an opposition negotiating team; former prime minister and Popular Freedom Party cochairman Mikhail Kasyanov officially proposed talks with “authorized representatives of the president and the prime minister.” Several opposition leaders have met with Kudrin to discuss the possibility of such talks.
Against this rush to negotiate with the Kremlin, Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent writer, former Soviet dissident, former presidential candidate, and one of the most respected figures in the Russian democratic movement, has sounded a note of warning. “The attempts to ‘establish a dialogue’ with the authorities are not just harmful—they are suicidal,” Bukovsky wrote earlier this week, “Tens and hundreds of thousands of people are coming out onto the streets to demand justice, not a ‘roundtable’ with Kremlin crime bosses.” Bukovsky reminded his colleagues that the leaders of the regime are “not only crooks and thieves, but also murderers,” pointing to the mysterious apartment bombings in 1999, the war in Chechnya, and a slate of suspicious killings of opponents, including Sergei Yushenkov, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko. In his view, only a Nuremberg-style trial of the regime’s crimes—not a “roundtable” with its leaders—can ensure Russia’s genuine democratic transition; a chance once missed in the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin’s administration shied away from putting the deposed Communist regime on trial. As for the 1989 roundtable talks in Poland, Bukovsky noted that “the regime negotiated for itself … two-thirds of seats in the Sejm [Parliament], and the presidency for the transitional period … [and] used the transitional period to strengthen its positions and stay afloat (with money, with power, with the press) in the new Poland.”
Indeed, the would-be government negotiator, Alexei Kudrin, has already indicated that Putin should remain president as part of any compromise with the opposition, since the simultaneous change in both the legislative and the executive branches would “carry too great a risk for our country.” As for new parliamentary elections—the main demand of the December protest rallies—Kudrin proposed holding them in “a year or year-and-a-half.” Both conditions would give the current regime the reprieve it needs to regroup and consolidate.
In any case, the talks—for now, at least—appear to be heading nowhere. After a recent meeting (termed “consultations”) with Kudrin, opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov announced that “negotiations with the authorities … have not come about,” since the regime “is ignoring the demands of the people.” Solidarity leader Boris Nemtsov, who also attended the meeting, urged his colleagues to cease attempts to negotiate with a “delusional” regime. One thing that unites all opposition leaders—those for and against talking with the Kremlin—is the conviction that public pressure on Putin must continue. The next mass pro-democracy protest—a march through the streets of central Moscow—is planned for February 4th.
Negotiating with the Kremlin