Editor's Note: Jeffrey Mankoff is an adjunct fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City.
By Jeffrey Mankoff – Special to CNN
On December 10, 2011, tens of thousands of mostly middle class Russians gathered on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square to protest widespread allegations of fraud in recent parliamentary elections. As the police stood by, the protestors marched, held signs and called for real democracy in place of the imitation created under Vladimir Putin. They then peacefully dispersed. The protests offered a heartening example of popular mobilization in a country where politics have become increasingly virtual under Putin’s “managed democracy.”
They also ran counter to a long-standing belief that the only groups capable of mass mobilization in Russia are extreme nationalists. This argument is not wholly unreasonable. Almost exactly one year before the Bolotnaya Square protests, the scene in downtown Moscow was very different. On December 11, 2010, thousands extreme nationalists gathered outside the walls of the Kremlin on Manezhnaya Square to protest the killing of an ethnic Russian soccer fan by a Chechen.
While the protesters chanted slogans against the government, their main target was non-Russian minorities. When police tried to disperse the increasingly belligerent crowd, the protest degenerated into a riot. Protestors fled to the metro, where they set upon anyone with dark skin they could find, injuring dozens.
These two Moscow protests - Bolotnaya and Manezhnaya - are the two faces of what Russian democracy could look like should the grip of Putin and his United Russia party be loosened. Russian leaders, including Putin, have long argued that the dark force of Russian nationalism lurks just below the surface and that a strong hand was needed to keep it in check. The Bolotnaya protests are an encouraging sign that other, healthier forces are at work in Russian society - ones that the Kremlin would be smart to engage in a dialogue about political reform. A controlled, consensual process of liberalization will give legitimacy to the forces of Bolotnaya. A resistance to fundamental reform will create more Manezhnayas.
The Kremlin argues that extreme nationalism is an elemental force in Russian society, but in fact, the authorities have done much to strengthen and legitimate it as part of their strategy for keeping power. While banning hardcore nationalist groups such as Slavic Union, the Kremlin has co-opted Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats, who still spout extreme rhetoric, but vote reliably with the government and provide a safe outlet for nationalist discontent. The Kremlin’s notorious rabble-rousing youth group Nashi plays a similar role.
After the Manezhnaya riots, Putin laid a wreath on the grave of the soccer fan whose murder touched off the violence, and hinted that the authorities would consider starting to curb migration to Moscow and other cities. This tolerance for nationalism in politics helps legitimate extremism. It also contributes to the raft of ethnically motivated crimes from which Russia suffers, including dozens of murders each year and frequent brawls between skinheads and minority youths.
Even as they play the nationalist card, Russia’s leaders invoke the specter of extremism as an excuse for maintaining their rigid, controlled political system. They argue that, in the words of one well-connected analyst, Putin is more liberal than 90% of the population, and that mass mobilization would only empower the groups who rioted on Manezhnaya Square, not the disaffected middle class protestors at the forefront of the Bolotnaya protests.
As in the Middle East, the danger that liberalization would benefit the extremists is real but probably overstated, especially if the Kremlin pursues genuine political reform that addresses many of the demands made by the Bolotnaya protestors. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Russia’s nationalists are not a well-organized, well-financed underground, but rather a motley collection of mostly disaffected young people without a coherent ideology or political program.
Official tolerance, and the absence of real opposition parties elsewhere on the political spectrum, gives them a degree of legitimacy they would otherwise lack. Moreover, the Bolotnaya protests demonstrated that the dichotomy between Putin’s authoritarianism on the one hand, and the Manezhnaya thugs on the other, is a false one.
To be sure, the Bolotnaya protestors were mostly educated, middle class Muscovites. Outside of Moscow and a few other cities, this demographic is much sparser. With a new round of protests now scheduled for December 24, an important indicator of the movement’s future will be how many people, and what sort, come out to protest, especially in places other than Moscow.
Despite this caveat, Putin and his allies are overstating the danger that Russia’s nascent reform movement will be hijacked by hardcore nationalists. Having a serious dialogue about reform offers a more promising way forward for the country than continuing its cynical minuet with Russian nationalism.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jeffrey Mankoff.