MOSCOW — Russia’s comfortable middle class turned to the streets for the first time this month to fight Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s rule over their country. But long-aggrieved nationalists have helped give the protests their crackling energy, in an alliance of forces that usually are disdainful of each other, if not openly hostile.
Combined, liberals and nationalists are trying to appeal to the wide swath of Russian society whose preferences fall somewhere in between them. Neither side expects the new partnership to last any longer than necessary, and infighting about how best to incorporate a grab bag of visions is starting to weigh down their progress.
Russia’s nationalists blame migrants and other non-ethnic Russians for crime and want to restrict immigration to their diverse country. The more extreme among them want to expand Russia’s territory to the historical limits of its empire and plot anti-immigrant violence that has many of them locked away. Liberal activists want social reforms that would improve the country’s struggling educational system, give poor Russians an extra hand and better integrate Russia with the West.
The groups share a desire to fight corruption and bolster their voice in government, but they have long focused on their differences, not their common goals. Leaders on both sides have expressed surprise that they are working together.
“This is a new factor in Russian political life,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a liberal political analyst. “Today, with our immediate national task of displacing Putin, this is a real political alliance. Tomorrow, we would be opponents on a different political theme.”
In the days after the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, liberals and nationalists protested together, united in part by the 15-day detention of Alexei Navalny, a blogger and anti-corruption activist. Although Navalny appeals to both groups, he has worked to maintain his support from nationalists, participating in the Russian March, an annual event that draws people who chant anti-immigrant slogans and sometimes give the Nazi salute. He was kicked out of the reformist Yabloko party in 2007 for his nationalist activism.
Organizers from both sides say he is the one person who appeals to both camps, although some view him with suspicion for that reason.
In the middle are the people who, until earlier this month, steered clear of politics. But many sympathize with the nationalists’ stance of putting Russians first even if they don’t identify with the leaders. A November poll by the independent Levada Center found that 59 percent of Russians surveyed thought favorably about the nationalist slogan “Russia for Russians.”
Analysts say the nationalists’ involvement in the movement against Putin could give them a prominent platform to air their cause.
“Nationalist ideas are rather popular among the population,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, the head of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which tracks nationalist groups. “But regular people who feel humiliated and fed up with Putin will never support extremists.”
Putin, who based his power 12 years ago on a muscularly nationalist platform, alienated some of his right-wing backers in recent years as the government channeled large amounts of money to Muslim Chechnya, a federal republic of Russia that has been the scene of bloody fighting for much of the country’s post-Communist existence.
Other extreme nationalists resent a crackdown that has put some of them behind bars on charges of violence against migrants. For the past several years, nationalists have conducted rallies against Putin’s rule. One leader, Vladimir Tor, spoke to the crowd at Saturday’s rally, which drew the most protesters ever to challenge Putin’s rule.
“Russia will become a free democratic state of the Russian people! Glory to the free nation, glory to Russia!” he shouted to the crowd of tens of thousands. Many protesters hooted disapproval, but some cheered his words.
“We are the salt without which the soup would not be tasty,” Tor said in an interview this week at his brand-new central Moscow office, which is filled with the bustle of construction workers who are laying the ground for a planned network of businesses that can give avid nationalists good jobs.
Nationalists and liberals want democracy, he said. But he added that significant distrust remains between groups and that he didn’t think they’d have much in common if they won their basic battles against corruption and for a representative political system.
At a planning meeting last week before the protest, the nationalists stuck out among the mixed crowd. Their young, brash voices competed with the measured phrases of older liberals, many of whom have been campaigning since the 1990s and hold little appeal to the new protesters.
An online poll conducted the week before Saturday’s protests put Navalny at the top of the list of onstage speakers — followed by two ultra-nationalist leaders who often draw supporters who give the Nazi salute.
Embarrassed liberals said the online poll had been gamed. Nationalists said that although there were some technical problems with the voting, the overall results reflect the depth of their support.
Putin has tried to exploit the divisions of the protest movement, last week appointing Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of a nationalist party, to be deputy prime minister for military affairs while a close Putin ally, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, pushes from the outside for reforms that would appeal to the prosperous middle class. Putin has refused to speak directly to the protesters, saying they are too split.
“They should formulate some common platform and common position so that it would be clear what these people want. They are very different,” Putin told reporters Wednesday. “Whom should I talk to there? I probably need to talk to every one of them and discuss their problems, so it requires some deep analysis.”