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.
Some activists among the protesters, along with the last USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev, seem so intoxicated with the prospect of the regime’s fall that they are almost calling for an immediate roundtable so they can dictate to Putin the conditions for his prompt capitulation.
How well-founded is this mood of imminent victory? It isn’t surprising that Gorbachev would gauge the current political situation in this way. Throughout his political career, he proved himself to be a poor judge of political dynamics, which contributed to his losing the country he wished to modernize.
Other radical protesters around Gorbachev seem to be counting on the authorities to be sluggish, helpless and scared, as they were when Gorbachev himself was at the helm during the fall of the Soviet Union.
But the current authorities and leaders are a far cry from their counterparts of the late Soviet period, and Putin is no Gorbachev.
There is no serious reason to cancel the results of the December 4 Duma elections. Recent poll results published by the Levada Center, highly respected by liberals, Western journalists and analysts of Russia, say that 48 percent of the respondents supported United Russia. These polls, issued on December 22, also suggest the other parties probably received even fewer votes than officially reported by the Central Electoral Commission. Who should the authorities trust when deciding the fate of the elections: the respected sociological service or fiery cries of revolutionaries such as Aleksei Navalny, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and others? According to the same polls, Putin’s approval rating and his activity, while not at 80 percent as it was at the beginning of the year, is still at 63 percent. That would be the envy of any leader in Europe or the United States. According to this data, Putin far outpaces all Russian opposition leaders in the trust he commands. Even if the presidential elections were to be held tomorrow, without a powerful electoral campaign and taking into account the negligible figures for other likely candidates, the 36 percent of voters that would vote for Putin give him victory in the first round on March 4. It is worth mentioning that the leaders of the parties that already entered parliament do not support the platforms of the radical protesters.
Also, many economic indicators—including the level of government debt, the budget deficit, and the unemployment rate—put Russia in better economic shape than most of the rest of the world. In addition, the rate of inflation is lower than in all of Russia’s recent history. These statistics give authorities confidence as they respond to the radical opposition’s demands.
This is all the more important given that the opposition has not offered an alternative program for the country beyond its desire to upend Putin.
Such an insubstantial tactic could work with regards to United Russia who, in the Duma elections, seemed to many a faceless mass of bureaucrats and functionaries. But it will not work against Putin, seen by the majority as a successful, charismatic leader vastly supported by the population, as reflected in independent polls.
No, the leaders of the radical wing of the protests are prisoners of their own illusions that foster visions of their ascension to power.
It could be argued that these people do not comprehend their own country if they believe that behind them stands all of Russia while in front are frightened schoolgirls in the form of Putin and his circle. Or perhaps they act in accordance with an old Russian tradition understood well by the great British philosopher Sir Karl Popper, who once suggested to me that politicians such as Gorbachev talk a lot, excite themselves with verbal radicalism, drown themselves in the streams of their speech and soon imagine that the entire country evolves as they speak to match their vision, as if the politician and the country exist in different realities. This tendency was evident 1990–1991, with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. It is equally true today of the leaders of the radical protesters and contemporary Russia.