The Russian Winter

Taken completely by surprise, this weekend observers of Russia witnessed what may be described in the history books as the turning point in the Putin era, as tens of thousands of protesters (according to some sources, as many as 100,000) – under dozens of banners and causes but united by one message – took over the streets of Moscow and seized the world’s attention.  Not quite an Arab Spring, there are some murmurs of this movement building throughout the Russian Winter.

The December 10th protests represent the culmination of a week of post-election unrest what saw the arrests and jailing of more than 1200 people, including opposition figureheads Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin.  The public anger over blatant vote rigging found its target in United Russia, entitled as “the party of crooks and thieves,” along with election chief Vladimir Churov, whom they have anointed as “the magician.”  There was also no shortage of banners carrying the simple message “Russia without Putin” along with a demand for fresh elections.

The reaction by the administration to the post-election unrest has been typically hamfisted.  A few days before the Saturday protest, Putin lashed out to blame US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” said Putin, as reported by The New York Times. “They heard the signal, and with the support of the U.S. State Department, began active work.”

The idea that people were protesting over their stolen votes because some foreigner told them to do so ended up being more cynical and absurd than people could bear.  It shouldn’t be surprising that Putin defaulted to this familiar defense, but it also demonstrates a profound level of uncertainty and indecision within the government on how to handle such a high level of public disapproval – and it has been a very long time since we have seen the Kremlin at a loss for a control strategy.

But the reality is, the scenes that have unfolded in Moscow over the last four days are unprecedented.  Spurred by a saturation of new technology and accelerated levels of internet penetration (we can debate the degree to which this mattered later), this dramatic demonstration of civic action is historic, signaling a broad rejection by Oppositionists, Communists, Nationalists, and NatsBols, among others, to a political and economic system that has run its course.

The result comes as a surprise because this is far from the first time the Kremlin has rigged a vote, and frankly, it’s rather natural for them to assume that they would get away with it again.  But instead what happened when the campaign machinery clumsily forced through a 49% result for United Russia – which was still a staggering loss of 77 seats – was a breakdown in the long assumed social contract.  I am speaking about this flawed assumption whereby the Russian people would tolerate rather diminished democratic rights and certain limits on freedom in exchange for stability, security, and economic growth under Putin’s guiding hand.  This was the central tenet of Vladislav Surkov’s sovereign democracy doctrine, and the seemingly reasonable excuse that Russians “weren’t ready” for democracy quite yet, and any deviation from Plan Putin would steer the country off track and toward the chaos of the 1990s.

No matter where Russia goes from here – and there is a strong argument that nothing will change given the strength and obstinacy of this regime – we will look back upon “the switch” when Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev announced that they would swap jobs without any consultation with the people as the dispositive moment when the social contract broke down.

Alexei Malachenko has commented that “Putin has stopped being the national leader — in the eyes of his team, the ruling political class and society.”  And that is the most meaningful aspect of these events.

In the past I have written about the “velocity of history” in Russia, whereby events of significant magnitude rush by so quickly that a nation becomes unable to reflect, respond, and react to these critical junctures before a new challenge presets itself – and yet, for once, this velocity is actually working against the regime.  Not only did Putin force his hand with the swap, but the events preceding and following have been staggering, from Mikhail Prokhorov’s highly public breakdown to Valentina Matviyenko’s rigged election (seen by many as the seed of discontent) to the public booing of Putin (described by Navalny as “the end of an era”), the sources of public outrage and the hapless, dishonest responses from the government have blossomed uncontrollably.

Maxim Trudolubov has argued that more than a collapse of a model, that Russia has come full circle since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  “It can also be understood as an accomplished ideal,” he wrote. “Call it Putin’s project. He has adapted old Soviet structures to control and redistribute assets. What outsiders call corruption, Putin sees as a system of incentives. The ruling elite does not want a rule of law, because life is good without it. You can grab property and buy a needed court decision anytime you like. You don’t need to worry about parliamentary scrutiny or pesky journalists.”

But accompanying this patronage structure there has been severe institutional degradation.  The state is unresponsive to its citizens, unable to reliably provide basic services, administer justice, or protect equality of opportunity.  People can land in jail – and not just the Khodorkovskys and Magnitskys of Russia, but average people – when a business competitor or extortionate bureaucrat wants you to be there.  This has created an alienation between citizens and the ruling class that Trudolubov compares to the Arab population living under Israeli government.

All this makes the scenes unfolding in Russia right now even more remarkable. This alienation has been replaced by its inverse: political participation. For the first time in 20 years, wanting to defend your vote is a progressive and attractive activity.  For the first time in years, matters of public affairs are important to citizens, while apathy wanes.

What makes these events all the more compelling is that, unlike the social upheaval of 20 years ago, there has been no single catalyst. Not unlike the explosion of the occupy movement in the West, already the critics are asking “what do you want” and “who is your leader,” when in fact these are the wrong questions.  The protest contained a vast variety of ideologies and demands – at one point you could see an LGBT rights flag in front of an ultra-nationalist flag.  Certainly at some point this unity will become damaged by disagreement among these factions, but it is clear that the goal of correcting the political system to be more inclusive, representative, and fair is shared among a large portion of the masses.

It seems that what people are calling for is not a wholesale revolution, upending the very structures of the state and starting from scratch.  Rather it is much more simple:  a recount of the votes.  The regime is not likely to give in.  After all, even if United Russia had to steal its way toward the largest share of seats, the parties it also controls (A Just Russia) and the parties that have long collaborated as docile minorities are still in control of the country.  But this weekend the people have spoken, and are likely to be encouraged to speak up again, and this simple tiny element of an active civic-minded public completely changes the political landscape for what everyone expected in 2012.  It will not, I think, be smooth sailing for Vladimir Putin to waltz right back into the presidency.