Last Saturday, tens of thousands of Muscovites gathered in the third mass protest in less than two months, chanting "Putin, ukhodi!" (Putin, go!) and "Rossiya bez Putina" (Russia without Putin). This demonstration of public resentment, unprecedented in post-Soviet Russia, is a sign of a broader political crisis.
This crisis was triggered by two events. First, in September, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that Putin, and not Medvedev, would run for president in the upcoming March elections. (He proceeded to promise that, if elected, he'd make Medvedev his prime minister.) The Russian public saw the two leaders' trading of places as evidence that they held their citizens in full contempt, especially when Medvedev, lamely, added that their decision to switch offices had been made long ago.
Then came the rigging of the December 4 parliamentary election. In Putin's Russia, a governor who fails to deliver good election results for United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party, risks being removed from his post; indeed, a few have lost their governorships in past years after United Russia fared poorly in elections in their regions. Seeking to outdo each other in a demonstration of loyalty, governors pressured their subordinates, from election officials to local administrators and even major industrial employers to deliver a high showing for United Russia. In particular, Moscow's new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, appointed in October 2010, was also anxious to demonstrate his loyalty and efficiency -- but given Moscow's educated and critically-minded constituency, the mayor's effort required egregious falsifications. Election observers reported episodes of ballot stuffing and of local precinct officials rewriting the voting records in favor of United Russia. According to various estimates by independent civic groups, the actual support of the United Russia in Moscow was around 30 to 35 percent; an exit poll conducted by FOM, a polling agency with close ties to the Kremlin, reported 32 percent. But in the final tally, Moscow election officials reported that 46 percent of the vote went to United Russia.
To be sure, there is nothing new in Russia about arrogant leadership or electoral fraud. Six years ago, for example, the Russian public was informed that voters would no longer elect their governors, including the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg. And two years ago, Moscow election officials rigged the elections to the city's Duma so scandalously that all opposition factions in the national legislature walked out in protest. Yet both episodes turned out to be non-events as far as the public reaction was concerned.
For years, relations between state and society in Putin's Russia were governed by what could be described as a tacit pact of non-intrusion. In a number of ways, among them replacing elected offices with appointed ones and introducing restrictions that effectively barred unwanted players from the political field, the government sent an implied message to the people that they should not meddle in state affairs; in turn, the government would not interfere with individual pursuits, and the country's creative and entrepreneurial classes enjoyed rather broad opportunities for self-fulfillment. In this way, the government and the people lived in parallel worlds. The Russian political establishment did not have to worry about accountability. Corruption, lawlessness, and abuse of authority became ubiquitous, while government performance grew increasingly inefficient; in recent years, poor infrastructure and lax safety standards have led to large-scale disasters that have left hundreds dead.
Although Russians were by no means blind to the government's deteriorating performance, they turned their backs on politics and policymaking. According to the Levada Center, Russia's most respected polling agency, year after year more than 80 percent of Russians surveyed have said that they don't make a difference in national or even regional affairs.
But the past years have not been entirely lost ones for Russian civil society: the new generation of urban dwellers, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, came of age in a world of opportunities for professional achievement and have mastered organizational and managerial skills. Russia's urban youth feel at home with modern communications. And in recent years they have come together to champion causes, most of them nonpolitical, that make up for the inefficiency of the government. For example, many have contributed to highly effective public charity operations, covering medical expenses for sick children in need of costly treatment in Russia or abroad. Another example was the impressive volunteer firefighting effort in the summer of 2010. That summer, when an unprecedented heat wave caused large forest fires, the government's response was slow and the firefighters lacked the necessary equipment. Muscovites, mostly young professionals and entrepreneurs, organized with great speed to exchange information and provide relief to the victims as well as equipment and assistance to the firefighters.
It is mostly the same category of people that took to the streets for a third time on February 4 to protest against Putin and to demand fair elections, and, more generally, to bring integrity back to Russian civic and political life. It is these younger, educated, professionally mobile Russians who volunteered to observe the parliamentary election on December 4; many more intend to observe the presidential elections on March 4. After years of indifference and cynicism with regard to politics, these Russians -- first and foremost Muscovites -- no longer accept a role of passive onlookers. Nor will they put up with "being treated as cattle," in a now common phrase used to describe the government's arrogance and disrespect for the public.
Putin and his allies have responded to the protests with promises of liberal reforms, such as the return of gubernatorial elections or an easing of restrictions on which individuals and parties can participate in elections. But the Kremlin has also exhibited a different kind of response: state-run television has shown material aimed at discrediting the organizers of the protests, and the government staged parallel mass actions in support of Putin, with ample evidence that MANY OF those who attended were forced to join or were paid for doing so.
Promises of reform notwithstanding, the overall political atmosphere has hardly changed: the government may regard the protesting public as a factor they now have to deal with, but they do not see it as a counterpart in policymaking or dialog. Grigory Yavlinsky, from the liberal Yabloko party, and the only candidate who could have counted on the genuine support of the anti-Putin demonstrators, was disqualified from the race and will not be included in the presidential ballot.
Even before the official presidential campaign began on February 5, Putin embarked on what was for all practical purposes a campaign trip, meeting with his constituencies in the Russian provinces. These visits were amply televised; at the same time, state television broadcast what they called "documentaries," which looked more like hourlong commercials glorifying Putin's achievements. Lastly, Putin declared that he would not participate in debates with other contenders; instead he has published articles in Russian newspapers in which he set forth his vision for Russia's future. When a Russian NGO complained that publishing these articles before the beginning of the official campaign period was a violation of the election rules, the invariably loyal central electoral commission clarified that this was "information," not agitation.
Because of these strong advantages, which are widely seen as unfair -- and especially because of the removal of Yavlinsky from the ballot -- Putin's forthcoming comeback to the presidency raises serious doubts about his legitimacy among broader constituencies at home. Moreover, in running for president for a third time, Putin may be acting in compliance with the letter of the Russian constitution, which limits presidential tenure to two consecutive terms, but he is arguably in conflict with its spirit, which provides for a democratic transfer of supreme authority.
There is good reason to suspect that Putin wants to win in the first round and avoid a runoff: after having been an unchallenged leader for so many years, having to contest a second round would make him look weak. The urgency of a first-round victory is sure to drive the logic of bureaucratic loyalty: the logic will push every administrator to report as high a vote as possible, inevitably provoking fraud and thus renewed protests.
In themselves, the current protests are too weak to bring about political change. The Moscow protesters do not have the commitment of the young Egyptians in Tahrir Square. In Cairo, young people came to the square ready to sacrifice their safety and, in some cases, their lives. In Moscow, however, the December protests were authorized by the city government, and the police did not rough up or detain anyone. The crowds in Tahrir Square would not leave for days and weeks, whereas in Moscow, after the second mass rally on December 24, the protest organizers as well as the participants went quiet during the long winter vacation.
That said, the government also seems to be losing patience with the protests: after easily authorizing the two protests in December, they were less cooperative in coordinating the February 4 march. Opposition leaders are talking of another demonstration just prior to the presidential election on March 4, but if the city administration does not sanction the rally, turnout is likely to be much lower -- not too many people would take the risk of defying a government ban.
The protesters yearn for respect, integrity, and fairness, and this endows them with moral strength. But they lack a political organization or mechanisms to convey their demands to the government. They welcome journalists, bloggers, and writers as leaders and speakers at rallies, but shun politicians. This rejection of politics reduces their power.
But even though the protesters may look politically weak, with tens of thousands in Moscow chanting "Putin, go," Putin's legitimacy will continue to erode. He may still have enough public support to win the March 4 election, but he is not popular enough to maintain the political monopoly he has built for himself over the past decade. Regardless of whether or not the protests continue after his reelection, various centers of power, such as the parliament, big business, or local governors -- which had been kept under tight control during the years of Putin's unchallenged leadership -- will likely gain more autonomy. Within the next couple of years, the elite class now under Putin's shadow may see their weakened leader as a burden rather than a safeguard of stability. A likely next step would be to divide his authority among them.
Reprinted by permission of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, February 9, 2012. Copyright 2012 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.