If you believe what you watch on state TV, the key to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin winning the upcoming presidential election lies in Nizhny Tagil, a gritty working class town of some 360,000, deep in Russia’s industrial heartland in the Ural Mountains. Never mind that Nizhny Tagil’s wider Sverdlovsk region – known for its gruff manner and one factory towns — handed Putin’s United Russia one of its lowest returns during the disputed December 2011 elections.
Nizhny Tagil earned its name as “The Capital of Putinism” soon after, during an annual televised call-in show in which Putin fielded “spontaneous’ questions from citizens for hours on end.
Putin’s performances are notoriously scripted affairs, only this year was somewhat unusual. Putin was confronting protests in cities across Russia – the largest since the demise of the Soviet Union. And so Putin looked visibly pleased when workers from a local tank factory in Nizhny Tagil stepped before the camera (see video below) and offered to come to Moscow and take on the protesters “if the police can’t do their job.” Toss in a suspect insult lobbed by a little known blogger in Volgograd who inferred Putin supporters were “cattle”, and a populist campaign in defense of the working class (and Putin) was born.
This campaign was why I traveled to Nizhny Tagil late last month. A large rally – “In Support of the Urals Workers” – had been called that Saturday, and across the Urals, factory brigades were mobilizing to show their disgust with the anti-Putin protests in Moscow.
“TV, that’s all they watch,” says Valerie Klimstev of the local, independent Tagilskii Variant newspaper, when I asked him if the support was genuine. “It says: America wants to steal our resources, the protesters in Moscow are paid agents of the State Department, and Putin is our savior.”
Klimstev said that workers had an added motivation to show up—there are risks if your boss notices you’re not there. “Some really believe [in Putin],” he says. “But most just understand that’s how it is. You don’t show up and you’re out of a job.”
The Kremlin everywhere
The Kremlin’s so-called “power vertical” – Putin’s decade-old management system that exerts control over Russia’s unruly regions — is alive and well. Built on a centralized tax system, carefully managed elections, subservient courts, and state media propaganda, the “power vertical” extends Moscow’s reach into towns all across Russia, rewarding loyalty and punishing dissent where and when it sees fit.
Those that buck the system, towns that elect the “wrong” candidate for mayor, risk losing out on work, federal investment projects, even federal budget revenues. At least that’s the popular conception.
For cities like Nizhny Tagil, with its World War II-era state-owned tank production line, this system ensures survival. Several workers told me Putin had come through with big state defense contracts when few were buying. “He helped us once when we needed help,” one woman told me. “Now we want to help him.” She seemed sincere.
But mostly, the rally in Yekaterinburg felt like a sponsored class field trip—play hooky and still get paid. With the temperature hovering around -20 C, bottles were passed subtly around. And then there was free transportation, free concerts, and a few extra rubles for your trouble. All told, some 6,000 – 8,000 people were shipped in for the event.
Sound from the rally in Yekaterinburg:
Whether these workers vote for Putin come election day hardly matters, says Leonid Volkov, an opposition blogger and independent city council member in Yekaterinburg. According to Volkov, these “Putings” — a derogatory term protesters have popularized by sandwiching ‘Putin’ with ‘meeting’ – exist to provide the veneer of success. It’s a visual narrative to legitimate Putin’s victory on March 4th.
“It’s to explain to somebody living in the city who thinks: but I didn’t vote for Putin. None of my friends did. And he still he got 65-70% of the popular vote,” says Volkov. “It tells him: OK, I’m in the minority, because the majority are those thousands of working class guys they show at the ‘Putings’.”
Volkov: “It’s not an election…”
Absolute power . . . doesn’t work very well
Putin has established political subservience over the past decade, but his system doesn’t solve actual problems on the local level. Traveling around Russia’s interior, the limits of this system, and Putin’s tax code in particular, become glaringly obvious. Communities send the vast majority of locally generated revenues to Moscow, where funds are then reallocated back out to regional governors. The result is that towns lack funds to tackle even the most basic problems without federal support, such as bad roads, overcrowded kindergarten and decaying public utilities.
Putin could, perhaps rightly, hang the blame on corrupt local officials. But most are now Kremlin appointees. The vertical system as been constructed so flawlessly that Putin owns all of Russia’s successes—and its failures as well.
Volkov: “The reverse side of the paternalistic state…”
Grassroots and online
Faced with breakdown in public services and government accountability, a form of horizontal civic activism is challenging the vertical order. It’s fueled by a growth in broadband Internet and a passion for social media. Last year, Russia took over the top spot as the largest Internet consumer in Europe, with Russians spending more time on social media sites than anyone else in the world — nearly 10 hours a month. Most of the growth has come in the regions, and much of it in smaller cities under 100,000.
And they want to get things done. Crowdmaps track wildfires and road repair, blogs crowdsource investigations into corruption and political chicanery, and Internet memes and viral videos push regional causes into the national consciousness. Leonid Volkov, the blogger/politician from Yekaterinburg, has even called for a Russian form of «Cloud Democracy», with a system in which virtual mayors lead issues rather than cities. A beta version of the concept, called Democracy 2.0, launched last year.
Notably, this online revolution predates the current election protests. Despite the best efforts of several long time opposition figures, protesters behind “honest elections” campaign seem to resist a figurehead leader. But they do embrace participation, transparency, and change.
Volkov: “My mission…is to help people organize these protests…”
Protests in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk — to name a few — have been crowdfunded using native Russian Internet services such as Yandex money and webmoney.ru. Online contests have asked participants to compete for the best song parody or poster denouncing Putin. In particular, Putin’s assertion that the protesters are on the payroll of the U.S. State Department has provided endless comedy to the online crowd.
Naturally, Kremlin groups have tried to ape this Internet savvy approach. Pro-Putin youth groups have launched their own online creative campaigns and Putin recently voiced support for a digital «E-democracy» initiative. But these efforts still smack of a top-down approach. For example, Putin has offered to consider re-introducing the direct election of governors, if “filters” were in place to approve the public’s choice.
Still, most in the opposition have given up thinking they can defeat Putin March 4th or even beat the Kremlin in the protest numbers game. If 50,000 come out in support of free elections, the Kremlin buses in 100,000. Numbers look less valuable compared to what the Internet calls “active users.” People who are there, and are engaged, because they want to be—not because they’re pressured by the Kremlin.
Who’s in charge?
The duel between these vertical and horizontal approaches has been on display again this week. A pro-Putin rally this week in Moscow was the latest impressive exercise in crowd management. Organizers say the event attracted over 130,000.
By contrast, an opposition rally this weekend will feature a human “ring” around the Kremlin that – assuming it succeeds – hopes to gather 34,000 protesters. A website created for the event allows participants to choose where they’ll stand. Who’s to say they’ll pick wisely or even show up?
On the website devoted to the unusual protest, a FAQ hints at the chaos, and – just maybe – the potential of a grassroots movement in a country accustomed to giving one man credit for everything.
Q: Whose idea was this?
A: Honestly, we have no idea.