An Arab Spring in Moscow?

This is a guest post from Vsevolod Gunitskiy, a native of St. Petersburg and an assistant professor of international relations at the Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.


Yesterday Moscow witnessed another boisterous protest against Putin’s regime – the latest in a series of confrontations that began in the run-up to Russia’s presidential elections. After more than a year of revolutionary uprisings, the recent demonstrations may seem like the latest surge of a global democratic wave. “In the street and the palace,” declared Foreign Policy, “the Arab Spring strikes the former Soviet Union.” But Russia’s protests bear little resemblance to the upheaval in the Middle East, and in the short term their most likely consequence is to undermine the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia.

The comparisons to the Middle East, pleasant as they might seem, simply do not add up. The demographic bulge that propelled the Arab revolts – mobs of young, unemployed, and disaffected males – is conspicuously absent in Russia, whose population shrank by millions since 1991 and is only now beginning to recover. And unlike the Middle East, whose problems were exacerbated by rising food prices at a time of economic uncertainty, Russia has maintained a relatively healthy growth rate, weathering the crisis mostly unscathed. The protestors in Red Square, unlike their counterparts in Tahrir Square, are members of Russia’s rising – but still small – urban middle class. Over the past decade, they have achieved a measure of economic security, and now demand the political rights that accompany bourgeois stability. But since they do not channel the concerns of the majority, their base of support is inherently limited. (The largest crowd in Red Square, according to some estimates, numbered 100,000 people, a far cry from Egypt’s millions.) Russian protestors take to the streets in indignation born of relative comfort, not desperation born of poverty and anger.

So barring any surprises, the wave in the Middle East is unlikely to spill over to the north. But this doesn’t mean it will have no effect. Russia’s leadership is smart enough to know that ignoring discontent will not make it go away, and have responded with a few nominal gestures of appeasement. In late December, Vladislav Surkov, the regime’s chief political architect and one of Putin’s closest advisors, was removed from his Kremlin post. Opposition leaders threatened to oust the country’s head of the Central Election Commission – a threat they failed to carry out after a grilling in the Duma.

These nods hardly amount to a transformation. But even incremental changes could provoke a backlash from regime hardliners, who see any accommodation of the protests, no matter how negligible, as a threat to the future of the Russian state. A similar drama played out in 1991, when a faction of Soviet stalwarts, exasperated by Gorbachev’s reforms, staged a brief takeover of the government. A coup is highly unlikely in today’s Russia, but tension between government factions could still undermine the system’s political stability. The bigger threat to Putin’s government, therefore, is not the protesters outside but the anti-democratic forces within his own regime.

Regardless of the outcome, the most likely consequence of the demonstrations is their effect on Russia’s relations with the West, and with the United States in particular. Russian leaders have a tendency to view any democratic outbreaks in the region as products of underhanded manipulations by outside powers. Conspiracy theories of Western involvement abound: just a few months ago, the head of Russia’s space agency claimed that recent satellite failures were caused by American interference. Closer to earth, any anti-regime upheaval is likely to be seen as outside provocation, which will lead to tensions in U.S.-Russian relations over the short term. Russia has repeatedly accused the State Department of fomenting the protests. This distrust recently displayed itself in the frosty reception of the new U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who met with opposition figures during his second day in office in mid-January. The following evening, the Russian media accused him of promoting intrigue and revolution – a short honey-moon indeed, and one likely to signal continuing anxiety.

More recently, Britain, France and the United States have been pushing for a UN resolution to deal with Syria’s worsening civil war. Threatened by unrest at home, Russia has little enthusiasm for supporting it abroad, particularly with the backing of the very same countries it claims are poisoning Russia’s backyard. Russia’s support for decisive action in Syria was never whole-hearted, but the protests have made its participation even less probable. In fact, only yesterday the State Department accused Russia of supplying the Syrian government with attack helicopters.

In short, it appears the most likely unintended consequence of the protests is a deepening clash between Russia and the United States, in both their bilateral relations and at the UN negotiating table. Ironically, the spread of the Arab wave into Russia may undermine its momentum in the very region of its origin.

Russia’s protestors are pursuing an important and laudatory goal, and the West should not shy away from applauding their courage. But hopeful outside observers should remember that waves not only swell – they crash, too.

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