A wave of anti-government protests in Russia in late 2011 has rocked its political establishment. United in anger at President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to cede his post to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as at evidence of electoral fraud in recent legislative elections, Russians have staged some of the country's largest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet those who expect Russia to follow the path of Arab revolutions are likely to be disappointed.

A wave of anti-government protests in Russia in late 2011 has rocked its political establishment. United in anger at President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to cede his post to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as at evidence of electoral fraud in recent legislative elections, up to 100,000 Russians gathered on 24 December to take part in some of the country’s largest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet those who expect Russia to follow the path of Arab revolutions are likely to be disappointed.

The protests may herald a period of greater instability, but they are unlikely to prevent Putin’s return to the presidency in March 2012 or to substantially transform Russia’s political regime, which is democratic in form but authoritarian in essence. The most that the protesters could realistically achieve is to impose greater accountability on Russia’s political elite, who have reaped huge economic and political rewards from the past decade of growth.

Putin’s return

A key reason for the protests was Medvedev’s announcement on 24 September that he would not seek a second term and was proposing that Putin, his patron, should retake the job. Putin in turn declared his intention to appoint Medvedev as prime minister.

Putin’s return to the presidency had been predicted since he stepped down in 2008 after serving two four-year terms. Few believed that Medvedev enjoyed real power as president. But no one could have anticipated the public outcry provoked by their planned role swap.

The proposed new arrangement undermined the success of the Medvedev–Putin political mix. With his modernising agenda, Medvedev appealed to an increasingly vocal younger generation and the new middle class, while Putin continued to enjoy support among the powerful bureaucracy and leaders of large state-controlled businesses, who were content with the status quo. Their combined popularity was only possible as long as there was still hope among Medvedev’s supporters that sooner or later he would be able to implement his agenda and bring about real political and economic liberalisation. The swap deal has put an end to these hopes. Instead, there is a widespread perception that Putin’s return for one or even two six-year terms will herald a period of economic stagnation reminiscent of the Brezhnev era.

The change in the public mood, particularly among Medvedev’s disillusioned supporters, reverberated throughout Russia’s blogosphere and social networks, and was reflected in the approval ratings of the ruling elite. Within days of the announcement, Putin’s ratings reached a historic low, dipping below 60%, particularly in large cities. These had remained above 70% throughout his presidency and premiership, during which time he was credited with steering the country through the 2008–09 financial crisis. GDP contracted by 8% in 2009 before recovering in 2010 and expanding by 4% in 2011.

Medvedev’s ratings dropped even further and continued to suffer after Putin delegated to him the unenviable task of leading the even less popular United Russia party, which saw a sharp decline in performance in the 4 December parliamentary elections.

Parliamentary elections

With around 60% of Russia’s 110-million-strong electorate turning out, United Russia secured a relatively poor 49.3% share of the vote, down from 64.3% in 2007. The Communist Party received 19.1%, up from 11.5%; the social-democratic ‘A Just Russia’ party secured 13.2%, up from 7.7%; and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky gained 11.6%, up from 8.1%. United Russia’s tally of 238 seats in the 450-seat Duma meant that it lost 77 seats and its two-thirds majority. The Communist Party now holds 92 seats, leaving ‘A Just Russia’ and the Liberal Democratic Party with 64 and 56 seats respectively.

While United Russia’s performance might be seen from outside as a decisive victory, especially in the context of the recent economic crisis, in Russia it was considered an unquestionable defeat. The ruling party, in spite of its administrative, financial, media and other advantages, failed to turn the tide of growing unpopularity. An opposition campaign slogan, ‘United Russia is a party of cheats and thieves’, clearly resonated with popular frustration at the corruption that emanates from ‘Russia Inc.’ – the fusion of state bureaucracy and business that stands at the core of Putin’s governance model.

Election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) delivered a damning verdict: ‘[The] elections were technically well-administered across a vast territory, but … marked by the convergence of the state and the governing party.’ The OSCE report said the ‘contest was slanted in favour of the ruling party as evidenced by the lack of independence of the election administration, the partiality of most media and the undue interference of state authorities at different levels. This did not provide the necessary conditions for fair electoral competition.’

Those engaged in electoral fraud failed to take account of Russia’s burgeoning Internet use. Web users were quick to upload footage of ballot stuffing, of organised groups being ferried around to vote in multiple polling stations, and even election officials openly filling in empty ballots in favour of United Russia. A few days after the elections it became evident that the Central Electoral Commission had also adjusted the vote count in favour of United Russia: the results it published differed significantly from those that had been recorded at individual polling stations and verified by domestic election observers.

The final regional breakdown of votes indicated that United Russia received well below 40% of the vote in most regions, but its 49% result was based on regional anomalies such as in the North Caucasus republics, where it won 99.5% support in Chechnya, 90% in Ingushetia and 91% in Dagestan. These results suggested that local officials arranged for United Russia to win the vote by exerting leverage over the local population, and channelling money and media resources in support of its campaign.

In addition, the Russian authorities attempted to limit the activities of independent monitoring organisations such as Golos – its website was hacked and there were attempts to disrupt its activists’ work on election day, prompting criticism from the OSCE, the European Union and the United States.

Protests

Internet users played a central role in fuelling perceptions of widespread electoral fraud and thus sustaining the momentum behind public protests, particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg where support for United Russia was particularly low. A 10 December protest in Moscow was thought to have attracted up to 50,000 demonstrators, while the 24 December demonstration was attended by up to 100,000. Smaller protests took place across the country. The growing scale of the protests and increased media coverage forced the authorities to change their response: until then, small monthly protests of this kind had been routinely suppressed, but on 24 December there was only a light police presence. The next demonstration is planned for 4 February.

Significantly, the protests were attended in large part by Russia’s new middle class and the younger Internet generation, most of whom were first-time protesters, newly engaged in the political process. Putin says his record of economic stability and growth has nurtured a growing middle class: it is now thought to exceed 50% of the population in Moscow and St Petersburg, and between 18% and 25% countrywide.

Despite the trend in modern Russia of demographic decline, the final days of the Soviet Union had seen a baby boom. Now aged 20–30, this generation is the largest demographic group and is also the most educated and Internet-literate. The older, post-war baby-boomer generation, which used to dominate the demographic profile, is rapidly shrinking. The younger generation, with the balance in its favour for the next decade, appears to have an opportunity to bring about reform from below.

The recent protests arguably represent a significant challenge to the legitimacy of Putin’s regime. This had previously been undermined by dramatic events such as the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, the Nord-Ost theatre siege in 2002 and the Beslan hostage crisis in 2003. But Putin, in contrast to those cases, is less likely now to be able to use the protests to justify an authoritarian response. Protests seem unlikely to stop until Moscow delivers on Medvedev’s modernisation pledges: to impose the rule of law and anti-corruption measures, bring about political liberalisation and create economic opportunities outside the highly state-controlled oil and gas sectors.

Patchwork of protesters

Though united in their calls for the demise of Putin’s regime – as well as for new laws, a fresh set of elections and the firing of the head of Central Electoral Commission – the protesters do not have a common vision of what should replace it and have no clear leaders.

Perhaps the most prominent of the middle-class activists is Alexei Navalny, a lawyer who has exposed many cases of official corruption in his popular blog.

Two groups widely represented in the protests are nationalists and the ‘new Left’. Moderate nationalists oppose immigration and resent the large share of budget resources that is allocated to the North Caucasus to prop up corrupt local regimes, such as that of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Resentment of these subsidies is likely to increase further in the wake of United Russia’s landslide victory in the region.

The new Left – which includes the Left Front, and the National Bolshevik Party led by dissident Eduard Limonov – is campaigning against policies that have left Russia with one of the world’s largest gaps between rich and poor. These groups are calling for oil and gas revenues to be spent on social policies and for some of the controversial privatisation deals of the 1990s – which concentrated tremendous wealth and key assets in the hands of a well-connected few – to be reopened.

Finally there is a group of ex-Putin-regime officials who are calling for both political and economic reforms, of whom Alexei Kudrin is one of the most prominent. He was sacked as finance minister in September after openly disagreeing with the Putin–Medvedev role swap and questioning the wisdom behind increased public and military spending on the eve of a possible new economic crisis. Kudrin, who joined protesters on 24 December, has called for reform of electoral laws and offered his services as a mediator between protesters and the authorities, including Putin himself. The offer has so far been rejected by both sides.

The established parliamentary parties – the Communist Party, ‘A Just Russia’ and the Liberal Democratic Party – have not endorsed the rallies. The Communist Party held its own protests. Even the Orthodox Church, having called on the authorities to listen to the voice of the people, distanced itself from the mass protests.

Presidential elections and beyond

Russia is now bracing itself for presidential elections set to take place on 4 March. Five candidates have registered with the Central Electoral Commission, four of whom will be representing parliamentary parties: Putin (United Russia); Gennady Zyuganov (Communist Party); Sergei Mironov (A Just Russia); and Zhirinovsky (Liberal Democratic Party). Billionaire businessman turned politician Mikhail Prokhorov is the only independent candidate to have successfully met the Electoral Commission’s requirement for 2m signatures to be submitted in support of a candidacy. Veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky (Yabloko) and Irkutsk governor Dmitry Mezentsev were both disqualified after over 5% of the signatures they submitted were rejected. Popular opposition figures, such as Navalny, have not registered.

With a month to go, Putin’s support appears too weak for him to win in the first round. The Levada Center, an independent polling organisation, puts Putin’s rating at 37%, while Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, and Prokhorov trail him on 8%, 5% and 4% respectively. Some 22% of respondents are still undecided.

While the wave of protests symbolises a political awakening in Russia, it seems unlikely to bring about true democratic change in the foreseeable future.

Putin is expected to weather the storm and win the elections. However, his forthcoming six-year presidency could be much different from his first two terms, with political instability spreading, the legitimacy and effectiveness of his model of governance being eroded and Russia’s relative economic and geopolitical strength declining. In these circumstances, Putin’s prospects of winning a fourth term look poor. Any attempt to suppress the protests could accelerate his demise.

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