The “moral character” of Russia’s protest movement is “starkly undeniable and remarkable,” said Lev Gudkov, the highly-regarded head of the independent Levada Center.* “I have not seen anything like it in the past twenty years!”
But is Russia’s civic unrest a flash in the pan or the tip of an iceberg? asks Leon Aron. Do the demonstrations manifest intense but fleeting anger, or do they represent an enduring and widening trend that may force major reforms or even regime change?
The Russian rallies of 2011–2012 appear to follow the pattern of successful anti-authoritarian revolutions in Europe, Asia, and Latin American, which were spearheaded by a middle class comprised of young, urban, well-educated, and relatively prosperous men and women, writes Aron, author of Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideals and Ideas in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991. An enduring prodemocracy movement would require crafting an effective approach to US-Russian relations that reaffirms the moral essence of US foreign policy.
Having reached their crescendo on Prospekt Sakharova and Bolotnaya Square between December 2011 and February 2012, by this summer, the Russian rallies have diminished in size. Neither Vladimir Putin’s inability to secure presidential election in the first round nor the explosion of mass protests that would have occurred if he had managed to do so have come to pass.
Moreover, according to popular opinion, the protesters were exclusively Moscow-dwelling upper-middle-class “bourgeoisie,” and the rallies were a march of “the mink coats,” far-removed from the “real people” and their concerns.
Yet, examined in detail and in a wider historical context, the evidence is far less conclusive and may in fact point in the opposite direction. To begin, contrary to the Moscow-centric version of the events, the protests were not confined to Moscow or to Russia’s “other capital” of St. Petersburg. Although far smaller in size than in the dual capitals, on February 4, 2012, rallies [mitings] and marches [shesviya] took place in one hundred and thirteen Russian cities and towns, including all the largest ones. Contrary to the “mink coats” myth, only 5 percent of the December 24, 2011, Prospekt Sakharova protesters could be classified as “rich.”
According to the traditional Russian definition that emphasizes education and occupation rather than income, this was a strongly middle class crowd: 70 percent had college degrees or higher and 13 percent were more than halfway (over three years) through college. Yet, almost half of the protesters would qualify as middle class anywhere in that nearly half were professionals [spetsialist] and a quarter either managers or owners of businesses.
The Lessons of History
The protesters were surely a distinct minority, as the Kremlin loves reminding everyone. But where and when has regime change—much less revolution—been enacted by the majority of people? The majority has families to feed and livings to earn. It is the younger, urban, better-educated, and better-off who tend to lead modern revolutions.
If the twentieth century’s European political history is a guide, movements with such a pronounced middle class deserve to be taken very seriously. As described by Samuel Huntington, Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset, the paradigm has proven correct again and again: after a period of record economic performance, the rapidly expanded middle class is no longer content to enjoy unprecedented personal freedom and prosperity; they also crave liberty and voice in the governing of their countries. This is the road democracy travelled, mutatis mutandis, in Spain, Portugal, and Greece in the 1970s when the middle class rejected dictatorships (or attempted dictatorships) on the Right and the Left; in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s; and in Mexico in the 1990s. In the end, the middle class invariably emerged a victorious regime-changer. “The gap between the Putin regime and the expectations and attitudes of the Russian middle class is widened by a deep generational—perhaps existential—divide.”
While what Huntington calls “performance legitimacy”—in essence, citizens’ allegiance to the state based on how much and how quickly their income grows—may secure an acceptance of a regime for quite a while (as in Russia in 2000–2008 and in China in the past two decades), economic growth in the long run is not a substitute for political reform or even regime change. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted over a century and a half ago, there is often a positive correlation between economic well-being and the propensity to rebel.
De Tocqueville’s paradox was borne out when the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in January 2011 touched off the Arab Spring in Tunisia, which was among the most prosperous Arab countries at the time, its economy having expanded for twenty years prior to December 2010.
The Russian Middle Class Follows the Pattern
Russian social dynamics appear to fit comfortably in this pattern. The great reformer and economist Yegor Gaidar used to say that Russia lagged behind the rest of Europe by about fifty years. He may have been right in this—the Russian middle class seems to have emerged from the sharp economic growth of 2000–2008 with higher expectations regarding state institutions and the engagement with the authorities at both national and local levels. Enjoying personal freedoms and prosperity unprecedented in almost a century, the more socially active segment appears to believe in being stakeholders in a functioning, fair, and less corrupt state.
An Existential Divide
The gap between the Putin regime and the expectations and attitudes of the Russian middle class is widened by a deep generational—perhaps even existential—divide. A quarter of the December 24, 2011, Prospekt Sakharova demonstrators were between ages eighteen and twenty-four, and over half were under age forty. Coming of age after the fall of the Soviet Union, most were likely frequent Internet users. Accounting for one of the sharpest increases in Internet usage in the world, in 2011, 37 million Russians were logging onto the Internet every day and 52 million—more than in any other European country—were using the Internet at least some of the time. Of Russians between twenty-five and thirty-five years of age, three quarters used the Internet every day—twice as frequently as their parents.
Although seven in ten Russians still have “favorable” opinions of Putin, the context, dynamics, and demography of his support may point to an increasingly brittle and hollow reputation. These men and women compare themselves not to their (mostly) Soviet parents or grandparents, but to their contemporaries in prosperous and democratic countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The proverbial “chaos of the 1990s” is at best a distant rumor, and a key legitimizing slogan of Putinism—“Regardless of what might be wrong with the country today, we’re better off than in the 1990s”—is likely lost on most of them. Judging by their Internet posts and interviews, it is an utterly bizarre anachronism for a great and proud European nation to have someone—anyone—in power for twenty-four years, which is how long Putin will have been in the Kremlin if he serves two six-year terms (counting, of course, Dmitri Medvedev’s 2008–2012 “presidency” as the continuation of Putin’s control over the government). This is six years longer than Leonid Brezhnev’s time in the Kremlin and as long as Stalin’s 1929–1953 reign.
Russian demographic trends endow these attitudes with considerable political heft. According to former first deputy prime minister and finance minister Alexei Kudrin, for the first time in decades, there are more Russians under age forty than there are above. Furthermore, the twenty- to thirty-year-old children of the Russian post-war baby boomers are the single largest age cohort in Russia today—a quarter of the population—and are likely to remain so for the next forty years.
Thus far, the polling results tend to be consistent with these forecasts. Among protesters, seven in ten identified themselves as “Democrats” or “liberals” (and only 6 percent as “national patriots”). Asked for whom they would vote in an honest, representative election, 24 percent chose the “party of the intelligentsia”—the Center-Left prodemocracy opposition party “Yabloko”—and 19 percent would vote for a hypothetical party led by a protest leader and Russia’s most popular anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny. Slightly more than one in ten supported the Communist Party, and about the same proportion would have voted for the “establishment” opposition Party of People’s Freedom, led by Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov, and Mikhail Kasyanov. The nationalists trailed far behind—whether Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (5 percent) or Dmitry Rogozin’s Party of Russian Nationalists (2 percent).
The Consonance of Attitudes
Yet, the grounds for anticipating the protest movement’s staying power, growth, and ultimate success extend far beyond historic precedence or demographic dynamic. Among the most important of these portents are the consonance of some of the protesters’ key attitudes with those of millions of Russians, the severity of economic and social problems that appear unsolvable within the current political framework, the protesters’ value system, and, finally, the core moral sensibility of the movement.
Greater still is the dissatisfaction, bordering on revulsion, with the daily dangers and indignities of Putin’s Russia. According to a Levada-Center poll this past April, 64 percent of Russians assumed that they might become victims of arbitrary arrest or other “lawless action” of the police or state prosecutors [prokuratura]. Fifty-five percent did not think they could rely on the courts to protect them from the abuse. Overall, while 71 percent felt that a fair judiciary was “very important,” only 17 percent thought their country had such a legal system.
The rise in the standard of living appears to have exposed still more Russians to abuse by authorities. Twenty years ago, the rudeness, corruption, and extortion by the traffic police affected only 6 percent of Russians; today, a quarter of the population has cars. According to Mikhail Dmitriev, president of the widely respected Institute for Strategic Research (which alone among the Russian think tanks predicted the public protests after the Duma election), the same is true of “other state institutions.” All in all, notes Maria Lipman, one of the most knowledgeable and objective observers of Russian society and politics, “possibly” as much as a third of Russians sympathize with the protesters’ cause.
A Wide Social Base
Of equal importance is the geography of the demonstrators’ social base. Some of the best-informed and most astute Russian observers see the growing appeal of the “Bolotnaya Square agenda”—democratization, open and competitive politics, impartial justice, fair elections, and elimination of corruption—in the country’s largest cities with populations of five hundred thousand or more, where between 44 and 50 million Russians live.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, among the most troubling results of the erosion of this official “mythology” is the attrition of Vladimir Putin’s popularity, which has been among the regime’s main legitimizing factors. Although seven in ten Russians still have “favorable” opinions of Putin, the context, dynamics, and demography of his support may point to an increasingly brittle and hollow reputation. Fifty-three percent of Russians think that “the population of Russia is tired of waiting for positive change in our life [to come] from Putin.
“A confluence of these “traditional” and “new” protesters could bring about a perfect political storm, which the regime will not be able to easily quell—or perhaps even survive. Some of the previously most appealing elements of Putin’s public image seem to be fading. If, in 2008, 62 percent of Russians thought that being “businesslike” was among Putin’s strong suits, only 39 viewed him as such in 2012. The general perception of him being “well-educated” has dropped from 52 to 28 percent, while his “leadership qualities” dipped from 41 to 28 percent.
Yet, Putin’s greatest vulnerability may stem from the fact that many—if not most—Russians support him simply because they see no alternative. The censorship of the national television and Putin’s barring of any popular prodemocracy opposition leader from running in the parliamentary, let alone presidential, election since 2004 have seen to that. It is thus quite plausible to assume that even a moderate relaxation of the Kremlin’s grip on the media and the expansion of the perimeter of public politics are likely to lead to a noticeable—perhaps even precipitous—fall in Putin’s ratings.
The Regime’s Inability to Deliver
In the end, as in all modernizing authoritarian regimes, the Kremlin’s greatest political challenge is to close the gap between the reality and expectations of the middle class. Can the regime manage this? Theoretically, it is possible, but in practice, it appears increasingly unlikely. To appease the population of larger cities and their growing demand for a fair and “just” state of laws (instead of one where rents and favors stem from personal connections and proximity to those in power), the regime would have to start with the creation of an effective and politically neutral judicial system and the establishment of effective limits on corruption.
If any Marxists remain in Russia, they would be hard-pressed to think of a more graphic instance of the necessity of regime change as postulated by “historical materialism”: a political “superstructure” shackling and retarding the development of the “base” (“the forces of production” or national economy) and thus doomed to replacement. There is a growing consensus among Russia’s leading economists and political commentators that the country is facing systemic problems—economic, social, demographic, and ethnic—that have proved impervious to assuagement, let alone solution, within the current political framework.
Systemic changes are needed for Russia to become a modern and prosperous country, but the regime is said to be incapable of enacting such changes on the necessary scale.
Economic Trouble on the Horizon
The main impediments to addressing this unhappiness through decisive and lasting political and economic modernization are the twin structural mainstays of Putin’s “sovereign democracy” framework: dependence on gas and oil exports and a pervasively corrupt rent distribution, with authoritarian control and patronage as its key instruments. Raw materials—mostly oil and gas—made up more than 85 percent of the country’s exports in 2011….. To balance the national budget in 2004, Russia needed oil to be priced at $27 a barrel, and, in 2011, at $115 a barrel. Thus far, the projection for 2012 is $117.
Just like past civil rights movements, Russia’s is led by a middle class that is seeking to effect vast political and social change through a personal and deeply moral effort. Yet, by a broad consensus, even growing oil prices are no longer a panacea. From an average expansion of 7 percent a year between 1999 and 2008, the Russian economy slowed down to 4.3 percent in 2011, and even this growth was largely due to an increase in the price of oil. No matter what the oil prices, an increase of even 5 to 6 percent seems unlikely because of what is euphemistically known as a “poor investment climate”—corruption and the absence of the rule of law.
Should the oil prices decline precipitously, “the instability of the economic situation” and the “resumption” of economic crisis will become distinct probabilities—and the resulting crisis is likely to be at least as deep and painful as that of 2008–2009.] A “contraction” is all the more probable because of continuing financial turmoil in the European Union, Russia’s largest trade partner by far. Kudrin put the likelihood of this scenario at 50 percent.
Potential Political Fallout
However, this time around, the political ramifications could be more damaging than they were three years ago because of the decline of the regime’s legitimacy over the past nine months. First, there was intense revulsion over the Medvedev-Putin job swap announced by Putin at United Russia’s (UR) national congress on September 24, 2011. The shameless fraud perpetrated in the Duma elections two and half months later was another major blow.
The situation is further complicated by a widely expected “toughening” [uzhestochenie] of budget policy—that is, budget cuts. Last summer, Kudrin estimated that to pay for the government’s “promises” in 2012 alone, oil would have to be $147 a barrel. In addition to the trillions of rubles “pumped” into the economy in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis (2009–2011), the budget has been badly strained by the huge increases in defense expenditures and the “social commitments” that Putin ratcheted in the run-up to his to reelection, including pension increases for retiring baby boomers and salary raises for the government workers (among whom are virtually all teachers and doctors in Russia).
Political Crystallization “From Below?”
But political crystallization of the protest movement does not have to wait for the economic “flash points.” We may already be witnessing the beginning of this process at the sub-national level. In a break with a key national political tradition, the protesters hope neither for a hero, a good tsar, nor another revolution “from above” to deliver lasting progressive transformation. Instead, they appear to predicate success on self-organization “from within” and from the bottom up.
These sentiments propelled 28,000 volunteers throughout Russia to observe the March 4, 2012, presidential election—an upsurge in civic responsibility and grass-roots activism unprecedented in Putin’s Russia and all the more remarkable because the result was widely believed to be predetermined. …………. The realization that “democracy does not start at the top” but instead “begins in local elections” has already translated into independent candidates’ winning ten out of fifteen mayoral elections held across Russia this past March, including in such major industrial centers as Togliatti and Yaroslavl.
And yet, it is precisely such an “unimaginable” scenario that the government appears to be predicting in retreating from Medvedev’s promises of liberalization in December 2011 and by blocking the few remaining venues of peaceful political change. A law that was passed by the Duma in April 2012 will make it extremely difficult for independent, not to mention opposition, candidates to get on the ballots in gubernatorial elections. To do so they must collect notarized signatures of 5 to 10 percent of the deputies in local assemblies throughout a candidate’s region. With the UR “party of power” holding over 95 percent of the seats in regional Dumas throughout the country, the required endorsements would be virtually impossible to obtain without the most unlikely eventuality of at least some deputies defying the UR leadership.
In addition, although newly elected governors will no longer be able to serve more than two consecutive five-year terms (another December concession), this limitation does not include the years in office of the currently serving, Kremlin-appointed governors. They are eligible for another ten years in office. Furthermore, “consecutive” means there is no limit on the total number of terms, thus permitting the Putin-Medvedev-Putin scheme in which a “dauphin” interlude allows the “regent” to be reelected again and again.
At the same time, the regime has severely constricted the last-remaining channel of public expression—protest demonstrations—by a 150-fold increase in fines for the “violation of the established order of organization or execution of mass simultaneous gatherings and/or movements of citizens in public places.”
For the first time in post-Soviet Russia, the sanctions also include “compulsory work” for “administrative violations,” with the terms more severe than currently meted-out for some categories of felonies. Alexei Kudrin called the law—signed by Putin on June 8, 2012—a “crude violation of a number of principles of rule of law, and, consequently, a violation of the constitutional right of citizens to peaceful assembly.”
The adoption of the law was followed by another first in post-Soviet Russia: early morning searches and confiscation of documents and computer media in the homes of several protest leaders on June 11. In the month and a half that followed, the Duma passed several laws further restricting freedom of speech and organization: criminalizing “slander” and punishing it with huge fines and lengthy prison terms; stigmatizing nongovernment organizations funded abroad by requiring them to register as “foreign agents;” and launching de-facto Internet censorship by creating an easily expandable list of “harmful” sites.
A Civil Rights Movement
In the short run, the sanctions might disrupt public protests. But any permanent “pacification” of the protesters by repression will almost certainly fail. Instead, it is likely it will only further discourage the protesters from even minimal cooperation with the authoritarian regime, thus increasing the possibility of radicalization and violence. The reason for the endurance is the movement’s moral credo. Although the demonstrators could be described as political opposition, a civil rights movement would be a more fitting characterization. They reject the system not because of some specific political or economic grievance, but because they find it indecent, undignified, offensive, and unworthy of them as individuals and as citizens.
The movement is united by a quest for dignity in liberty and democratic citizenship. “Instead of ideological dogmas, follow moral norms, believe in common sense and in the individual,” said one of the movement’s most popular leaders, Alexei Navalny, to an interviewer. The protest, Navalny contended, was not so much about politics as it was about “a very simple idea of struggle for one’s rights, for one’s voice, one’s choice.” To Lev Gudkov, the leading independent Russian pollster and president of the Levada-Center, the “moral character” of the movement was “starkly undeniable and remarkable,” especially after a decade of political apathy: “I have not seen anything like it in the past twenty years!” he said.
Just like past civil rights movements, Russia’s is led by a middle class that is seeking to effect vast political and social change through a personal and deeply moral effort. The moral imperative of dignity in liberty and equality informs the protesters’ discourse.
According to independent observers, people demonstrated for “human dignity, the right to choose their own fate and to live in a lawful state.” Their key demands are equality before the law (now controlled by authorities on the national and local level) and the end of de facto disenfranchisement: their votes do not count if they are cast for a “wrong” party or candidate.
A Challenge to the Kremlin and US Policymaking
As with other governments confronted with civil rights movements, there is good and bad news for the Kremlin. Civil rights movements are notoriously disorganized, slow to crystallize politically, and sluggish to produce a leadership structure. They are mistrustful of politics and reluctant to join or even support political parties. The bad—very bad, I should say—news for the regime is that a combination of organizational inchoateness and moral intensity makes this movement hard to subvert or manipulate. The absence of formal and permanent leadership structures impede the effectiveness of harassment or cooptation.
If this quiet and unyielding determination continues to inform and inspire a politically active Russian minority, US policymakers ought to adjust to the fact that, after a decade of at best harmless neglect, Russian domestic politics will become an increasingly central factor in US-Russian relations. This should be a welcome change for it may indicate a restarted evolution immensely favorable to America’s geostrategy and security: a free, prosperous, democratic, and peaceful Russia, once again within the grasp of the Russian people.
Leon Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. This is an edited extract from the full analysis available here.