Russia’s Democratic Winter

An emerging national protest movement poses a direct challenge to Putin’s one-man rule.

This is not how the New Year was supposed to begin for Vladimir Putin. The official script was clear enough. After presiding over his United Russia party’s now-routine rigging of the December 4th parliamentary elections, Putin was supposed to sail to victory in the coming March presidential race, resuming the office that he never truly relinquished to his longtime deputy, Dmitry Medvedev, while a passive Russian public looked on. But that script, so familiar in recent years, has been rejected by an unlikely source: a fed-up and suddenly politically conscious Russian middle class.

Anger at Putin has been simmering ever since his September announcement that he would be swapping jobs with Medvedev in a pre-agreed deal, a brazen admission than made a mockery of what remained of Russia’s damaged democratic process. The more immediate source of the public’s outrage is the December 4th parliamentary elections, which saw United Russia triumph in its usual style, complete with widespread fraud and ballot stuffing, but without its usual mandate. That Putin’s party failed to capture its standard majority was unexpected. But arguably more shocking has been the post-election surge of civic participation in a country that was written off as apolitical and even indifferent to the dissolution of civil liberties and the rule of law during Putin’s 12-year reign.

If the events of the past few weeks have proven anything, it’s that this view of the Russian public requires reassessment. On December 10th, some 60,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across the country poured out into the streets in a display of anti-government protest unprecedented in recent Russian history. Demanding a “Russia without Putin!” they called for the annulment of the elections and a new vote.  Putin’s initial response was to dismiss the demonstrators’ concerns and to portray them as puppets of foreign powers. That had the unintended effect of galvanizing the protestors, who again took to the streets on December 24th, this time with as many as 120,000 people in Moscow alone. The message rang loud and clear: Russians were angry and they weren’t willing to stay silent.

Russia’s budding protest movement underscores several important changes inside the country. The first is the emergence of a politically active middle class. This has come as something of a revelation. For much of the Putin era, it was assumed, not least by Putin himself, that Russians didn’t particularly care about politics. What Russia’s middle class wanted was political stability and rising living standards. But the new generation wants more. The mostly young, urban professionals who have made up the recent protests are not content with stability at the expense of democracy and they chafe at the government’s blatant corruption. “We’ve been assured for decades that we are sheep,” says Ilya Yashin, the leader of the liberal democratic Solidarnost movement. But “we have shown the whole country, the whole world, that we are a free and proud people.”

Indeed, defiance has been the dominant attitude of the protests. After Putin mockingly likened the protestors’ white solidarity ribbons to condoms, they responded at the most recent demonstration by waving condoms like balloons. Their signs have been scathing, branding United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves,” the phrase coined by the popular opposition activist and blogger Alexei Navalny. And their demands have been uncompromising, best captured by the movement’s emerging slogan: “Not a single vote for Putin!”

As such signs suggest, Russians have become less inhibited in their opposition. Despite serving 15 days in jail, Alexei Navalny recently vowed that protestors could seize the Kremlin and pledged to take up to 1 million protestors to the streets in the run-up to the March election. Even television, formerly the preserve of government approved programming, is becoming more fearless. On December 18, the current affairs show Central Television program on channel NTV – itself owned by state-run gas company Gazprom – featured a 10-minute satirical broadside against Putin that highlighted polls showing his plummeting popularity and likened him to dictators like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. The aggressively anti-Putin tenor of the show was all the more remarkable because the typically pro-government channel had just recently run a smear campaign against Golos, Russia’s sole independent election monitoring group. Now Putin was the target.

For its part the government, having failed in its strategy of waiting for the protestors to fade away, has moved to offer token concessions. Putin, after initially disparaging the demonstrations, has said that they “need to be treated with respect,” though he continues to insist that the December 4th elections were legitimate. President Medvedev has paid lip service to greater transparency and recently announced that reforms were in the works to allow a wider range of parties and candidates to compete in elections -- though only after the March presidential election. Neither proposal has mollified the protestors, who have vowed to return to the streets in the months ahead.

Encouraging as the rising opposition has been, serious challenges remain. Most notably, there is no unified platform or political figure around which the protestors can rally. The fact has not gone unnoticed by Putin, who has noted that “There are no people who could do something concrete.” There is also concern that some of the opposition figures could be co-opted by the government. Eyebrows were raised when Putin announced  that Alexei Kudrin, a disgruntled former finance minister who had supported the protestors, remained on his “team.” Some opposition activists also worry that the decision of billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, to challenge Putin in the next election is a political ploy, designed to put a competitive gloss on an election that will not be truly contested.

Even if the March election proves to be business as usual, however, the events of the past month suggest that Russian politics has been transformed. Just as the freezing months have arrived, Russians’ disengagement from political affairs seems to be melting. If that continues, it could be a long Russian winter for Putin.