Russia: Revolution or Evolution?

January 5, 2012 5:30 PM

The Russian "Snow Revolution" is proceeding in slow motion. The two big demonstrations on December 10 and 24 represented Vladimir Putin's worst nightmare: peaceful mass protests by the new professional middle class. For seven years, he has been preparing measures to counter a Russian version of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but to no avail. Suddenly, his repressive legislation and violent young guards do not look frightening but obsolete and ridiculous.

One month has passed since the blatant and evident rigging of the Duma elections on December 4. The united opposition demands that these elections be declared null and void and that the whole election system be democratized. But Putin, who has concentrated all power to himself, does not seem to have understood what has happened. He has made no concessions, and only abused the demonstrators in his usual crude language. He has refused to admit that there was gross fraud in the Duma elections, which, according to many assessments, amounted to 15 to 20 percent of the votes for United Russia, the ruling party.

On March 4, Russia is supposed to hold presidential elections. The whole setting is undemocratic: Many individual candidates have been refused registration on bogus grounds. Two million signatures are required for individual candidates to be allowed to run. Previously, such candidates have been disqualified despite having collected two million signatures. The government maintains media control. These elections cannot be judged as legitimate.

Putin has not presented any election program as yet, and United Russia never did so before the Duma elections. He does not even try to offer anything to voters. On New Year's Eve, he claimed implausibly that "Russia is an island of stability," as if completely unaware of reality.

Putin has done one thing—reshuffled his staff, virtually all of them. He sacked his only serious political advisor, Vladislav Surkov, and replaced him with Vyacheslav Volodin, who led United Russia's failed legislative election campaign. Putin has appointed two of his closest contemporary KGB colleagues from St. Petersburg to top jobs. Sergei Ivanov became his chief of staff, and Sergei Naryshkin Speaker of the State Duma. In addition, Putin has appointed hard line nationalists to two top jobs—Dmitri Rogozin as Deputy Prime Minister for the Military-Industrial Complex, and the ardent anti-American, Alexei Pushkov, to chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Duma.

Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo has pointed out that "few of the owners of mansions in London or dachas in Sardinia would want to be implicated in a forceful crackdown." These billionaires include many members of Putin's security services, siloviki, and other St. Petersburg friends. In 2011, the Central Bank of Russia estimated capital flight at $85 billion, reflecting the Russian elite's fear of the country's political risks.

Putin seems unable to reach out. Dmitri Medvedev, still president of Russia, made an attempt, proposing the reintroduction of elections of regional governors in his state of the nation address, but since his many statements have not had any consequence, nobody takes them seriously any longer.

Corruption and the criminalization of the state are Russia's key problems. Implausibly Putin downplays these problems and pretends that rule of law prevails, showing that he is not prepared to do anything to address them. Admittedly, he sacked three managers of his notoriously corrupt Gazprom, but all three are old survivors and not key players.

The opposition looks more promising. After the two big demonstrations in December, an even bigger one is called for on February 4. The organization of infrequent, big demonstrations is much more efficient than persistent demonstrations, as the Iranian revolution in 1978–79 showed, with ever bigger demonstrations every fortieth day. Permanent demonstrations in the cold winter wear out the demonstrators and call for dramatic resolutions.

The latest independent Levada Center poll of December 15–20 put Putin's vote at 36 percent if there were elections in December—25 percentage points lower than in September. That level can only move lower from here because his magic is over. He is hardly even making any election promises. The free Internet is taking over the public debate from the official television, offering ever more criticism of corruption and lawlessness.

Therefore, Putin is not likely to win a majority and if he were elected his election would be judged unfair and illegitimate. Both the Duma elections and the presidential elections need to be repeated after decent electoral laws have been adopted. The recent mass demonstrations have shown the strength of the resistance.

Andrei Illarionov, a former chief economic adviser to Putin who is now at the Cato Institute in Washington, has interpreted Putin's recent appointments as a sign that Putin is preparing for a state of emergency with a full-fledged dictatorship. But Putin has not sufficiently nurtured the security police or prepared for such a state of emergency. Because his regime represents no ideology but only corruption, it does not inspire loyalty among the troops. For years, Putin has failed to comply with his own promises to provide hundreds of thousands military officers with apartments. A military clampdown is probably no longer possible. His actions reflect a scared man who entrusts himself to his closest old friends but does not know how to compromise.

The fear has been broken, and for now, order prevails. While power has not changed, society has.

The opposition is multifaceted with two strong currents. One consists of the experienced liberals and the other of the young, centered around the anti-corruption lawyer Alexei Navalny. They are all middle class, and are forming a national movement. The older group is more cautious and stands for evolution. Navalny might prefer revolution, but he rejects that course, and currently both groups appear truly peaceful.

The obvious solution in a stalemate between obsolete powers and a dominant opposition is a compromise based on the old Yeltsin constitution. Many seasoned liberals have signed a declaration calling for a roundtable where the government and opposition could agree on political reform leading to the fast democratization of Russia. The dissidents seem to have borrowed their model from Poland in 1989. Their demands are quite moderate—essentially they request an end to repression, for recent political prisoners to be freed, and an end to administrative and political pressures on courts.

The idea of a roundtable has been strengthened by the decision of Alexei Kudrin, the former ally of Putin, to join the opposition. As Russia's respected minister of finance from May 2000 until September 2011, Kudrin was one of the longest serving ministers under Putin, and also his personal friend. Kudrin has tried to persuade Putin to join a roundtable. So far Putin has not responded, but it will be difficult for him to justify the use of force when the opposition has behaved so peacefully.

Navalny, the most popular young leader of the protest movement, and his followers, have not joined this call. Various manifestos circulate on the Internet, but it is unclear what strategy these people will choose. They are not trained in the political process, but the popular momentum lies with them.

At the same time, arrests of peaceful protesters continue. One thousand were arrested during the demonstrations on December 5–7 in Moscow. The December 10 and 24 demonstrations led to the jailing of protesters in several towns around Russia, but not in Moscow, and on December 31, the police arrested 60 participants at an unauthorized action demanding freedom of assembly in Moscow. Most of those arrested have soon been let out but quite a few have had to serve 15 days in jail.

Meanwhile Putin is procrastinating. He has lost the initiative, and it is doubtful whether he will be able to recover it.

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Anders Åslund Former Research Staff

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