Russian Protests Won't Stop Putin

Despite the recent unrest, Vladimir Putin is on track to be elected president once again.

The mass protests of December 10 and 24 in Moscow, in which an estimated fifty to sixty thousand people (or twenty-nine to thirty thousand people, according to official government reports) demanded fair elections and protested the alleged mass falsifications of the recent Duma-election results, caused widespread euphoria in opposition circles both in Russia and in the West. Many began to talk of a Russian “Arab Spring,” the delegitimization of Russian authority and the end of the Putin regime. I shall seek to describe the condition that the authorities and the opposition now find themselves in and their readiness to face each other.

First, the government. I was a participant in the nationally televised “direct conversation” with Vladimir Putin, which lasted over four and a half hours. I noticed not a shade of anxiety in his behavior or in his responses to questions on the most acute domestic- and foreign-policy problems, including some inconvenient personal matters. It seemed that both Putin and the Russian authorities were fully cognizant of the reality that the protests have serious causes that go beyond scattered violations of electoral laws. As both the president and the prime minister have noted repeatedly during the last few years, the country suffers from an intolerably high level of corruption. This is demonstrated in the president’s recognition of theft in the implementation of defense contracts costing hundreds of billions of rubles. Or by the prime minister's recent statement that the heads of many energy companies gain orders and the opportunity to earn money in ways that prevent fair competition from other market participants. In addition, there is awareness of a growing alienation on the part of young people who cannot find access to professional opportunity or to political involvement. In the political realm, there remain nearly insurmountable difficulties in registering a new party. The result is that many outside the legal political process become radicalized and drawn to the sphere of street protests. Further, the absence of direct gubernatorial elections and the constrictive electoral system for entering the Duma result in the effective exclusion of new cohorts of bright, talented people from the echelons of power. The formation of the Duma based entirely on party lists led to the graying of the deputies as well as to the lowering of the prestige of the legislative branch in the eyes of the population.

Now let us look at the conclusions drawn by authorities after the December 4 elections and the resulting alienation of the people. Authorities have adopted a number of steps indicating that they wish to respond to the societal impulses and are ready to act decisively to do so. Both the prime minister and the president have spoken about important steps taken to combat corruption. To avoid turning this into an internal problem for the power structures yet again, and in order to increase the public’s control over implementation, the government took a number of steps in the spheres of recruitment for and development of the political system. The new leadership of the Duma is one such measure, as are the new appointments in the government and presidential administration.

A particularly noteworthy new appointment in the government is that of Dmitri Rogozin as deputy prime minister. In the political establishment, he has traditionally been the voice of the nationalist-patriotic forces. (There have always been plenty of liberals in the Russian government, as illustrated by the appointments of Anatoly Chubais, Sergei Kirienko, and until recently Aleksei Kudrin, Alexander Zhukov and others.) This is a one-of-a-kind appointment of a “different” politician in the Russian government designed to signal that the people’s interests are being taken into account. Also, numerous political decisions regarding the political system are aimed at addressing the demands of more liberal citizens. These include a more streamlined process of registering political parties, direct elections of subentities of the Federation, the return of elections in the parliament, where, as before, people will compete in single-member districts in their regions, and a number of other measures aimed at improving the democratic system of Russia.

This raises a question: are these measures enough to a) tamp down the passions and protests, and b) guarantee a presidential victory for Putin in March? The answer, in my view, is yes.

The answer stems in part from perceptions of the opposition. It is diverse both in organization and ideology. In their ranks, the opposition can count the entire political spectrum of Russia, from anarchists to monarchists. Its demands and followers can be divided into several categories. For those who came to Bolotnaya Ploschad and to Sakharov Prospect to influence the authorities and demand to be heard, the government’s actions open the door to those people via the registration of new political parties and the participation in elections in single-member districts. Many of these protesters will know the authorities have heard them and responded to their demands. This also applies to a large degree to the nationalist-imperialist segment, whose interests are represented by Dmitri Rogozin.

But besides these protesters, there are others—such as Aleksei Navalny—for whom the fight for fair elections is just a smokescreen, while the main goal is to overthrow the current regime through increased mass street pressure, radical demands for setting aside the recent election’s results, new Duma elections and finally new presidential elections.