To circumvent biased reporting on state TV and bridge the huge distances between Russian cities, the protesters have used decentralized means of communication, such as social networks. High-speed Internet connections have penetrated remote corners of Russia in recent years and blogging services such as LiveJournal have been prominent for a decade. Thus, the Internet plays a more important role than it did in Iran’s abortive Green Revolution or during the Arab Spring.
Nonetheless, Russia’s size could become a liability for the protesters if things come to a head and, say, Putin refuses to accept a defeat in the March election. While there have been regular protests in cities from Stravropol in the south to Khabarovsk in the Far East, only Moscow and Saint Petersburg have seen true mass demonstrations. As in Serbia in 2000 or Ukraine in 2004, where demonstrations played out mainly in the capital cities, Russia’s metropolises have long been hotbeds of dissent. Unlike Serbia and Ukraine, however, provincial protesters would be unable to come to the rescue in case of a showdown.
In the Philippines in 1986, former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos’ tanks were stopped by nuns and small children. In the fall of 1989, East German soldiers joined their fellow citizens in the protests that brought down the Berlin Wall. However, during the same year in China, protesters in Beijing were crushed by troops from Inner Mongolia who didn’t understand Mandarin and had no sympathy for big-city dwellers.
While army units or riot squads (OMON) stationed in Moscow are too disgruntled by the recent police and military reforms to participate in a bloody clampdown, special-operations forces from the provinces, staffed with veterans of the Chechen war, might cherish the excitement of sticking it to the Moscow fat cats. Likewise, army officers from poorer regions are more grateful for the salary hike that Putin’s United Russia party announced, with much fanfare, shortly before the recent Duma election.
However, while some parts of the security apparatus might support an initial crackdown, violent repression would be difficult to sustain. That means that Putin would be well advised to heed the protesters’ demands and call new and fair parliamentary elections. If he opts for violent confrontation, the short-term outcome will be decided by the loyalty of the armed forces. His long-term fate, however, would be much grimmer.
Mischa Gabowitsch is a research fellow at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany.
Copyright: Project Syndicate