Memo to: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev
Subject: Russia and the Arab Spring
From: A traveler to Cairo and Moscow
Dear Sirs: You may think that the situations in Egypt and Russia have nothing in common. Think again. Yes, these two countries have starkly different histories. But having visited both in recent weeks, I can tell you that they have one very big thing in common: The political eruptions in both countries were not initially driven by any particular ideology but rather by the most human of emotions — the quest for dignity and justice.
Humiliation is the single most underestimated force in politics. People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you force people to live indefinitely inside a rigged game that is flaunted in their face or make them feel like cattle that can be passed by one leader to his son or one politician to another, eventually they’ll explode. These are the emotions that sparked the uprisings in Cairo and Moscow. They don’t go away easily, which is why you’re in more trouble than you think.
Have you gentlemen looked at the homemade videos going viral around Russia these days? One of my favorites was made by two Russian paratroopers-turned-singers, posted on YouTube under the title “Russian airborne veterans against Vladimir Putin.” Their lyrics were aimed directly at you, Mr Putin, in the wake of the Sept. 24 announcement that President Medvedev would step down and pave the way for you and your party (now widely known as “the party of crooks and thieves”) to run for president for two more six-year terms — 12 more years!
Russians immediately started calculating how old they’d be when they might see their country led by someone other than you, Mr Putin. It was depressing for many — made more so by the fact that Mr Medvedev said that your “trading places” was planned long ago. Yet no one else was consulted, and you two didn’t even bother to offer a narrative as to why Putin should have 12 more years. No wonder that song by the paratroopers to Putin was all about dignity: “You’re no different from me, / a man and not God. / I’m no different from you, / a man, not some hick. / We won’t let you keep lying. / we won’t let you keep stealing. / We’re liberated troops who defended the motherland.”
Aleksei Navalny, the shareholder-activist-blogger who helped stoke the rallies against you, said to me that nothing spurred the protests more than the daily experience of Muscovites having to sit in traffic while a car with a flashing blue light carrying some Putin crony behind tinted glass speeds past.
“It is all about dignity,” Navalny said. “Who are these people? Why don’t they care about our rights? It doesn’t matter at all how good a career you build. You will stand in this traffic, and these people and their sons will drive past you with their blue lights.”
Mr Putin, you have substantial achievements. During your first eight years as president, starting in 2000, you stabilized a collapsing Russia and oversaw the emergence of a big urban middle class. Admittedly, you didn’t achieve this with kid gloves, and it was attended with widespread corruption and fueled by oil exports. But enough trickled down so that a real middle class of professionals and entrepreneurs emerged. They are your accidental political offspring — “maybe the first independent political class in modern Russian history,” says Max Trudolyubov, the editorial page editor of the Vedomosti newspaper — and now they want a voice in their future.