If we want to start to understand the meaning and potential consequences of what has been happening in Russia since (and, indeed, somewhat before) the Duma elections on December 4, I think we need to ask one key question: when large numbers of Russians turned out to vote against United Russia, the ruling party, what actually changed?
If we believed earlier that Russians were passive, apathetic and happy to exchange political freedom and public sovereignty for oil-fueled prosperity, then we have to explain why, all of a sudden, that passivity, apathy and happiness evaporated. And that’s a very difficult thing to try to explain, given that the Russian economy, while not all that robust, isn’t doing all that badly, and when people were unhappy about their economic prospects in 2009 and 2010, support for Putin and his regime remained strong. And it doesn’t take much investigation to figure out that the post-election protest movement isn’t exactly Occupy Wall Street: there are no economic or even welfare-related demands.
But what if we eschew the notion that Russians were passive, apathetic and happy to exchange freedom and sovereignty for prosperity? What if we understand the Russian social contract to date as a non-interference pact, in which the masses and the elite generally agree to stay out of each other’s way, allowing each to pursue their own individualistic goals without too much friction? If that’s our starting point, then we begin to see how the elite have been increasingly in breach of that social contract for two or three years. Even as the economy contracted, the absolute volume of corruption – money extracted from citizens and businesses – has continued to grow, according to estimates by Georgii Satarov, Alexander Auzan, Transparency International and others. The elite have more and more brazenly pressed their claims to Russia’s public spaces, barreling though the streets with their flashing blue lights, demolishing historic neighborhoods, cutting down forests and, um, stealing elections.
Russians have in fact been reacting fairly systematically to all of these encroachments. Anti-corruption networks like the one lead by Alexei Navalny; historical preservation movements like Arkhnadzor or the movement against the Gazprom tower in St. Petersburg; automotive movements; the movement led by Evgenia Chirikova to defend the Khimki Forest outside Moscow – all of these have developed successful repertoires, backed the government into corners, occasionally won policy reversals and, most importantly of all, generated a sense of solidarity and common purpose. These are not the doings of a passive, apathetic and happy people.
That still leaves the question of why the elections – which heretofore had nothing to do with any of the other problems capable of getting Russians angry – suddenly became salient. Honestly, I don’t think we can answer that question yet; a lot more sociology will be needed. But here’s a hypothesis: this whole election cycle, beginning with the parliamentary elections Dec. 4 and ending with the presidential ballot on March 4, was meant to carry one single slogan: “Nothing Changes”. Putin is the anti-Obama, promising that he will continue to rule and maintain the status quo for another 12 years, which is as close as you can get to eternity in a country where most planning horizons don’t run beyond six months. Regimes get in trouble when they try to establish themselves as permanent. When Kuchma in Ukraine announced that Yanukovych would carry on his style of rule, Ukrainians stood up and said ‘no’. Something similar, probably, happened in Egypt. Now it may be happening in Russia.
The protesters in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere are not, however, revolutionaries. They are not, by and large, calling for the immediate resignation of Putin (although they wouldn’t shed too many tears if he decided to go). They are not itching for a fight. Which raises the question of why the regime is itching for a fight. By putting the riot police and interior military troops on the streets, they’re sending a message that they’re there to stay, and anyone who says otherwise will get knocked on the head. That ups the ante and backs the opposition into a corner, creating the impression of a ‘now or never’ moment. That sort of dynamic is good news for no one.
If, as is likely, cooler heads prevail on both sides, the protests will eventually subside, but the questions don’t end there. If Putin had once believed he could coast back into the presidency on the strength of his popularity and reputation without much campaigning, that bubble has burst. Once he figures out how to demobilize the protesters, he will have to figure out how to mobilize his own support base. United Russia, unlike authoritarian ruling parties in many other parts of the world, has not built up a solid constituency through robust clientelism, ideological affinity, or even real populism, and it’s late in the game to start now. Putin has already begun handing out money to regions where the party’s vote totals were low, but that may be too little, too late. In accusing the U.S. of fomenting revolution, he may be trying to pick a fight in order to rally the troops, but it’s tired rhetoric that seems unlikely to win all that many new friends. Embarking on political reforms, such as reinstating directly elected governors, might make some liberals happier, but there aren’t enough of them to matter. Repression – or keeping serious competitors off the ballot – is another option, but given the reaction to the allegedly falsified Duma elections, that’s risky. Certainly, Putin and his advisers can come up with many more options than those, but no obvious strategies present themselves.
Incidentally, meteorologists are predicting an unusually warm winter in Moscow. And I think the political scientists are inclined to concur.