In just six months, from the end of September last year to March this year, Russia was transformed. The state’s gradual decomposition — its degenerate ethos of rent-seeking and appropriation of public goods — finally pushed Russia’s citizens, especially its young post-communist middle class, into the streets. Soviet-era deference to paternalistic leaders gave way to self-confidence and distrust of established authority.
Or did it? Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his regime, caught off guard by last winter’s massive protests, were on the verge of panic. However, after last month’s presidential election returned Putin to office, the protest wave rapidly subsided. Rallies shrank to one-tenth their previous size. With expectations of immediate success unmet, the romantic impulse wilted. It was clear what to do in confronting electoral fraud; what to do later, after the defeat, was not. The protests’ leaders could formulate no new goals and slogans.
Moreover, between the parliamentary elections of last December and the presidential election in March, the authorities began to seize the initiative. Putin’s presidential placeholder, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev proposed political reforms and started meeting with representatives of opposition parties, which also had a demobilizing effect.
The authorities no doubt perceived the decline in street activity as a victory for them, which they immediately sought to consolidate by using the security forces to suppress future protests. Courts hearing allegations of falsified election results generally ignored clear evidence of legal violations. To many, the protest movement had been defeated.
However, there was no real victory for the country’s power elite; nor was society defeated. The protests reflected irreversible changes. Russian society has become a dry peat bog, waiting for a spark to ignite it.
Of course, the reforms announced by the government were the simulated sort that have been a staple of Putin’s rule, but, even as the authorities try to dilute their own initiatives — for example, resumption of elections for regional governors, removal of barriers to party registration, or the establishment of independent public television — they have provided new opportunities for political participation.
What is happening in Russian society is more important. In Moscow, the presidential election coincided with the election of municipal leaders. Those in power, concerned about alienating voters, increasingly sought to hide their affiliation with Putin’s United Russia party. And the municipal elections, previously the object of widespread indifference, attracted educated, active young people — the first “unwhipped generation” in Russian history — who not only challenged the incumbents, but won.
This bottom-up process is inestimably important to Russia’s future, and Moscow is not the only example. In several Russian cities the opposition won mayoral elections. In Astrakhan, where the opposition candidate lost because of widespread voting fraud, the scale of street protests grew tenfold, and the entire country has been stirred by the election scandal. Nowadays, opposition leaders from Moscow and elsewhere travel to other cities and join the protests or become election observers.
That activity will need to continue. When asked in a recent interview about the fate of the Putin-Medvedev regime, Medvedev said: “It is now time to calm down, because the tandem is here for a long time.” However, while the “tandem” continues to see its main achievement as “stability,” what they now mean is the regime’s ability to stay in power “for a long time.”