MOSCOW – The Russian frost broke last month, literally and figuratively, as a surprise December thaw brought the warmest temperatures in more than a century to Moscow and as two equally unexpected massive pro-democracy street rallies fundamentally challenged the Putin-era status quo. Though winter will undoubtedly return, few believe the political climate here will ever be the same again.
Ironically, those who attended the two protests to demand that an allegedly fraudulent parliamentary election be overturned were overwhelmingly the winners, not the losers, of the past decade under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian leadership. Call them the Putin Generation: mostly young, social media-savvy, highly educated and relatively well-to-do urban professionals who have until now accepted the Kremlin’s “social contract,” which required only that they stay out of politics in return for the chance to build their careers, enjoy their private lives, travel wherever they wish and safely vent their feelings on the Internet.
Until last month, it seemed to be working. Putin’s Kremlin strategist, Vladislav Surkov, engineered the elaborate political system that has been dubbed “managed democracy,” featuring carefully-controlled electoral choices, a straitjacketed media and a civil society in which politically-active groups are either co-opted into the state-run Public Chamber or suffocated under tax inspections, computer anti-piracy laws or a variety of other pseudo-legal pretexts. In the 2003 and 2007 parliamentary elections, the pro-Kremlin behemoth United Russia was the clear victor.
But in the December 4 Duma elections, United Russia barely squeaked to a 49-percent win and even that, opposition parties and bloggers argued, was called into question by extensive fraud and shameless vote-rigging. The first small post-election protests, involving the usual liberal and left-wing dissident groups, were brutally put down by police. But then the unexpected happened. Police grudgingly granted opposition groups a permit to gather on December 10; at least 30,000 filled Bolotnaya Square. After police approved another permit for a December 24 rally, at least 60,000 swarmed onto barricaded Sakharov Avenue to demand the elections be cancelled and re-staged under fair rules and for Putin to abandon his plans to run for a third term in presidential polls slated for March 4. He is eligible for two more six-year terms.
The opposition parties that called the rallies appeared totally blindsided by these turnouts. Summoned not so much by political organizers as by viral social media messages, the multitudes suddenly showed up with a staggering variety of individual signs and messages. Most insisted that they had no political affiliation.
“We’re tired of all the lies, the endless corruption, and feel like we are ready to participate in making decisions,” said Vladimir Kuvshinsky, a network administrator in an IT firm, when asked his thoughts on the mood of the crowd.
“We don’t want 12 more years of Putin’s dictatorship,” said Ksenia Atarova, who described herself as a writer and critic. “The people have woken up at last, and they want fair elections and a chance to voice their resentment about a lot of things that are happening in this country.”
Protest organizers promise to be back on the streets in February, as Putin vies with a lackluster field of opponents in presidential elections now likely to be under close public scrutiny. Some experts argue that the real revolt is likely to begin in the spring. Many segments of Russian society haven’t been heard from yet, although public opinion polling suggests they too are upset – not only at the deficiencies of “managed democracy,” but also by spiraling inflation and government plans to “reform” pensions and other social benefits.
“The real protests are yet to come,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, a veteran left-wing activist and director of the independent Institute for Study of Globalization and Social Movements. “The vast majority of Russians, who saw their lives improve in the early Putin years, have experienced sharply worsening living standards since the economic crisis began in 2008. Now [the street rallies] in Moscow have shown them that protesting is a possibility. … We’re looking at a classic revolutionary situation.”