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The Russians who braved subzero temperatures to demonstrate against Vladimir Putin on Feb. 4 were not as liberal as the West would hope. They differed from the participants in last December’s rallies, which involved young and middle-aged professionals. Some of these marchers represented instead an anger that has been brewing for years on the Russian street but has found scant expression in the country’s neutered official politics or on its sanitized airwaves. Some might term these ideologies extremist, but given the dark, brutal conditions in which they have arisen over the past decade, they are only natural.
On Bolotnaya Square, by the iced-over Moscow River, anarchists in black carried banners proclaiming “A Strong Society Needs No Leader”; communists with fluttering crimson standards called for free education and health care; and rowdy young nationalists declared “God is with us!” and “Russia for the Russians!” (pointedly excluding the Central Asian Muslims who have in recent years moved to Moscow in great numbers, searching for work). A few protesters carried Soviet flags: Nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s social safety net and superpower status is strong, even among people too young to have experienced much more than their parents’ reminiscences. Others—people with local grievances, various other leftists, and even die-hard Russian imperialists—handed out leaflets and tried to proselytize the passersby.
The rally’s organizers estimated attendance at 120,000—an astonishing figure, given the weather. This was not, however, the day’s only outdoor gathering in Moscow. Out on the heights of the Poklonnaya Gora park, tens of thousands of Putin supporters assembled under the banner “We Have Something to Lose.” According to press reports, many had been paid to attend or threatened with dismissal from their jobs if they did not; they were bused to Moscow in vehicles owned by state-owned companies and treated to potent grain-alcohol libations. They heard various speakers’ lamentations for the passing of Muammar Qaddafi and the tribulations of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (both Russian allies), claims that oppositionists were on the U.S. payroll, and denunciations of the whole Bolotnaya crowd, characterized as rabble-rousers intent on another Russian revolution. The audience chanted, on cue, “Russia for Putin!” and “Glory to Russia!”
Russia is divided between those who are willing to stand up to Putin’s regime, and those who, out of fear or for personal gain or even just habit, favor its continuation. Dread of chaos and repression, Russians often say, is in their genes, and overcoming such a genetic patrimony takes guts, plus the certainty that what is to come will be better than the present. Trepidation and inveterate pessimism are motivating some people to stand by the devil they know.
In all likelihood, that will be enough to ensure that Putin prevails in the Mar. 4 presidential election. Last September the Kremlin declared that Putin, who currently holds the title of Prime Minister, planned to switch roles with President Dmitry Medvedev. Putin’s approval rating promptly dropped to 35 percent, but it has climbed back up to 50 percent or higher. Should Putin win the election and serve out two full, six-year terms, his tenure as Russia’s de facto leader, including his previous two terms and a stint as Prime Minister, will have run for 24 years—nearly as long as Stalin’s.
The surprising strength and resiliency of the opposition movement, however, raise doubts about whether he can hold on to power that long. The most important question for Russia and the world is less what the next Putin term will look like than what direction the country will take when he is gone.
Putin’s most valuable asset right now may be the long memory of the Russian people. Russia’s last major political stand-off—in October 1993, between former President Boris Yeltsin and the reactionary, Soviet-dominated legislature—ended in bloodshed. Communists launched an assault on the main television channel, Yeltsin sent tanks to bombard the Parliament, snipers fired on crowds from rooftops, and a state of emergency was imposed. Later that year the government adopted an authoritarian constitution that paved the way for Putin’s centralized rule. Few democracy activists are inclined toward violence today, and most suspect that Putin would be even harsher than his predecessor in dealing with an open rebellion. Russia’s business community has largely learned to work within the system (or else!) and counsels caution.
Putin is taking pains to convince foreign investors that his renewed tenure would bode well for them. At the Russia Forum in Moscow in early February he cited Russia’s relatively low inflation rate, minimal government debt, modest budget surplus, and 4 percent-plus annual growth in gross domestic product. He promised to designate an ombudsman to look after the rights of foreign businessmen.
Does Putin enjoy legitimate support? He has run Russia for 12 years, though for the last four from Moscow’s White House (the seat of government), not the Kremlin. To re-assume the presidency, he is counting not on votes from Internet-savvy Muscovites, with whom he’s never been particularly popular, but on backing from “the masses,” the hinterland burghers and villagers who rely on state TV for news. He has courted that constituency since the beginning of his first presidential term, making sure that companies remitted their taxes and that pensions and salaries were paid on time. Putin has successfully cultivated his image as a Slavic stud, a dynamic helmsman steering Russia through turbulent waters. He publicized his exploits on state-run television channels. By establishing order, he halted Russia’s 1990s’ slide toward the abyss and allowed a middle class to emerge and even flourish, with its income doubling during his years in office.
And yet members of the middle class still came to Bolotnaya on Feb. 4 shouting “Russia without Putin!” “Down with Putin!” and “Putin, leave!” As the years passed, graft and corruption increased in proportion to Putin’s centralization of power. Among other misdeeds, Putin and his cronies are alleged to have channeled billions of dollars to offshore bank accounts. Ordinary Russians are tired of lawlessness and proizvol, the arbitrary abuse meted out by a venal elite and its lackeys. They are sick of suffering demands for bribes from policemen and bureaucrats, doctors and teachers. They know about the massive hydrocarbon revenues flowing into state coffers as they watch hospitals deteriorate, roads decay, social services falter, and prices rise.
Many Russians now also travel abroad and speak English; they understand that the corruption pervading all areas of their lives is a relative anomaly. Putin, they presume, controls everything and thus must assume the blame for all these outrages.
The parliamentary elections, held last Dec. 4, were the last straw. Demonstrators accused the government of brazenly defrauding them at the ballot box; YouTube now hosts a compendium of clips purporting to show blatant instances of vote-rigging on polling day. A younger generation of Russians who have only known life under Putin are disinclined to listen to words of caution from their elders, who, inculcated with Soviet-era mores, are often wary of change. One banner spotted in Bolotnaya Square read: “Old Putinist Codgers, Move Aside!” To an extent, the population is split between the Internet haves and have-nots as well as the young and not-so-young.
Despite the palpable discontent on Russia’s streets, there is no obvious alternative to Putin. His most formidable official challenger in next month’s election—official in the sense that he is a registered candidate—is Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, 68, who polls a paltry 8 percent. Arcane registration rules excluded legitimate contenders—that is, those who would have given Putin a run for his money and infused the pre-electoral period with frank talk of the government’s failings.
That leaves the gang of activists who for years have led sparsely attended demonstrations and suffered routine detention as a result. Oldest among them is former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is 48 and has promoted democracy’s cause since 2004, when he founded the Free Choice 2008 Committee. But Kasparov’s Jewish and Armenian descent makes him an unlikely President, given endemic anti-Semitism and rising Russian chauvinism. Sergei Udaltsov, 34, leader of Vanguard of Red Youth and coordinator of the radical Left Front, repeatedly decries Russia’s “monstrous social inequality” and has predicted a “people’s uprising” if the government continues to ignore the opposition. His social agenda addresses the widespread income inequalities that have characterized Putin’s Russia, but his hard-line leftism (he led the Stalinist Bloc in a failed bid for parliamentary seats in 1999) does not sit well with those who find the Soviet past frightful and no guide for the future.
Then there’s Alexei Navalny, 35, the blogger who has emerged as the opposition’s most prominent figure. A staunch Russian nationalist and lawyer by trade, he has tried to reassure investors and bankers in Moscow that they need not fear the demonstrators; in fact, during his legal career he lobbied for shareholder rights, which are sorely lacking in Russia. For the moment, neither he nor the other oppositionists are sufficiently well-known to command a national following. There is no Russian Mandela, no Muscovite Havel waiting in the wings to unify the country and chart a path to a demonstrably brighter future.
In the short run, that bolsters Putin. But divisions among the opposition will work to its long-term benefit, by slowing down the movement, giving its young leaders time to mature, and letting Russians see just who they are and what they have to offer. Whatever their differences, all of the opposition leaders say they support free elections, and if given the chance, will let the people decide.
What, then, awaits Russia? Courts have dismissed most allegations of electoral fraud from the Dec. 4 parliamentary vote. Vladimir Churov, the much reviled head of the Central Election Commission who oversaw the tainted polls, remains secure in his post. These two facts call the integrity of the coming presidential elections into question. To win, Putin will rely on his hand-picked governors, dependent on his approval for their livelihoods, to “bring him the vote” from their provinces.
Though inevitable, Putin’s victory will be pyrrhic. The prospect of six more years (at least) of Putin’s rule, if ushered in by fraud, may swing public opinion decisively against Putin and his clan, converting the protest movement into something more tumultuous and threatening. The unofficial opposition already considers these elections fraudulent, since legitimate candidates were prevented from taking part. Even if citizens in the hinterland remain on Putin’s side, the populations in the big cities will be the ones who end up determining the confrontation’s outcome.
Would Putin, once elected, point his guns at the demonstrators, should they increase in number? He has not been hesitant about employing force in other settings: His rise to power owed in part to his prosecution of a brutal war against separatists in Chechnya. But Russia today is a different country, and violence would only catalyze the movement he seeks to marginalize. It would also jeopardize the regime’s access to the halls of Davos, the resorts of Europe, and overseas banks. If Putin resorts to repression, his own elite, eager to retain its privileges in the West, may well oust him.
A graceful exit, though, is equally unimaginable. In Putin’s mind he must remain in office at all costs or face a future of trials for corruption or worse. He confronts an insoluble conundrum, in which his job security depends on the Russian people’s returning to apathy and submissiveness.
Barring a heavy-handed government crackdown that could push the country toward implosion, Russia appears to be headed for a protracted struggle between the government and the opposition, which, divided as it may be, will agitate and use the power of the street to force change. The disparate opposition groups will continue to stage demonstrations and marches—consolidating support and developing a common agenda. It could take months, possibly years, for the movement to succeed. As the two sides joust for advantage, businesspeople and investors, as well as average folk, will have time to adjust to the prospect of apost-Putin era.
If the opposition succeeds in tilting public opinion against the government, Putin may find himself left with few options. He would surely demand guarantees of immunity for himself and his elite as a condition of his voluntary exit, as, in effect, Yeltsin did when he handed power to Putin 12 years ago. The opposition’s plans for a one-year transition would allow candidates for the presidency to propose detailed platforms and garner support based on something other than anti-Putin ire. Though it would suffer an immediate shock from the loss of contacts it has built up with Putin’s government, the business community would, in the end, benefit from a more open and competitive political environment.
The coming ides of March (and beyond) may prove turbulent, but they augur well for Russia and those who believe in its promise. The key demand of protesters ringing from loudspeakers throughout the frigid air on Bolotnaya Square was for honest elections—an essential attribute for the rule of law. Russia has never tried that. It’s about time it did.