Russia is not Egypt. And Moscow is not on the eve of revolution as Cairo was less than a year ago. Indeed, Russia’s powerful have at their disposal assets that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime lacked.
As an energy superpower, Russia can open its coffers to appease, at least in part, the humiliation that it has inflicted on its citizens by falsifying the country’s recent legislative election results. And not all Russians are in the streets. We should beware of the “zoom effect,” which made many people believe that the young protesters of Cairo’s Tahrir Square were fully representative of Egyptian society. They were not. Rural Egypt, like rural Russia, is much more conservative than the young elites who seize the world’s imagination with their protests and embrace of modern social media.
Furthermore, Mubarak was old and sick, and no longer enjoyed the trust of his people. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, by contrast, exudes energy and health, and may still reassure many segments of Russian society whose main concern is their country’s glory rather than its citizens’ happiness.
Yet Putin may be overplaying the macho card so excessively that it could backfire and contribute to his isolation from Russia’s urban and more educated voters. However, even if the tens of thousands of demonstrators are unlikely to threaten the survival of Putin’s regime, the Kremlin would be wise to take them seriously. The protesters’ trademark so far has been moderation and restraint; nothing would be more dangerous than violent repression.
Beyond the issue of violence, the Russian authorities would take a huge historical risk by failing to register the public’s growing alienation. Sheltered physically and metaphorically by the Kremlin’s high walls, and having progressively lost contact with the living conditions of ordinary people (if they ever had any), Russia’s leaders seem to consider their lifestyle to be both normal and eternal.
From the standpoint of condemning elite behavior, Russian protesters evoke, at least partly, the actors of the Arab Spring. In their denunciation of “Soviet electoral practices,” they reject the combination of despotism and corruption that characterized Soviet power yesterday and Russian power today — rhetoric familiar from Arab revolutionaries.
As young Arabs told the rulers of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and other Arab countries, this new generation of Russians is telling Putin: “Get Out!”
However, most participants hold few illusions about the efficacy of their protest. They want to express to Russia’s rulers the extent of their frustration and determination. They may not expect regime change, but they expect at least some minimal reforms.
Above all, they want to set limits on Putin’s power. However, their protest’s ironic consequence may be that the more moderate of the two figures at the summit of Russian politics, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, will not return to the post of prime minister, as had been planned. A game of political musical chairs would simply be too much in the eyes of too many Russians.
The protests have caught the Kremlin’s masters, as well as the majority of Russia’s citizens, by surprise. They failed to recognize that globalization — particularly the global information revolution — has made the world more transparent and interdependent than ever. The protesters of Madrid were inspired by those of Cairo, and were themselves a source of inspiration from New York to Tel Aviv — and, subsequently, to Moscow.