Challenging Putin's Faux Democracy

As demonstrated on the streets of Moscow, the Russian middle class has found its voice against the cyclical rule of Putin and Medevev. But will they be heard?

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Protesters hold a banner with a portrait of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a demonstration against recent parliamentary election results in Moscow. Reuters.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's dominant political figure for more than a decade, has a distinctive gait. It is a strut, reflecting the cultivated tough-guy persona that has served him well in his years as president and prime minister, giving people the sense that he is in full command. With the perspective of a Moscow correspondent during the Soviet era of the 1970s, I have watched modern Russia, sadly, accepting this bumptious model of authoritarian rule. But lately Putin's demeanor has started to fray, as the generation that has come of age in the years since the implosion of the Soviet Union has shown signs of impatience with his autocratic leadership. From the turn of the millennium, when Putin was effectively anointed by Boris Yeltsin as his successor in the Kremlin, Russia's middle classes seemed to be generally content with what amounted to a "nonparticipation pact" in which they stayed out of politics and the state gave them wide latitude to improve their standard of living, measured in cars, apartments, and travel abroad.

History will likely record that Putin's self-confidence went too far last September 24, when he had Dmitry Medvedev, his nominal stand-in as president since 2008, announce at a convention of their United Russia Party that the top candidate in upcoming elections would again be Putin in a deal they said had been long in the works. The impact of this revelation was profound: it was a declaration of contempt for popular opinion that significantly underestimated how Russians would react. The next step in this clearly orchestrated faux democratic process was the parliamentary balloting on December 4, which was condemned by observers as shamelessly fraudulent yet still cut deeply into United Russia's majority in the Duma. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two of Russia's best and most outspoken journalists summarized the reaction of their contemporaries in a commentary they called "Putin's Children: Flying the Nest." Writing on the website Open Democracy after a crowd of about 50,000 filled the streets of Moscow around Bolotnaya Square to protest the elections, Soldatov and Borogan said: "For years, a pact of loyalty in exchange for rubles fostered the growth of a largely apolitical middle class in Russia." But "the middle class has now broken the pact by turning out on to the square and it's obvious that their interest in politics was not only because of the vote rigging at the election." This new generation of Russians, they declared, has joined their counterparts in other countries in adopting social media as a symbol of their place in the hierarchy of the digital age. "The middle class, having switched on to politics, rushed to exchange its views in the social networks. Facebook became much more important than Twitter: these days it's not just a means of mobilization, but also a platform for interaction and a source of news... One thing is clear: the middle classes are calling for new leaders, but for the moment have no candidates to propose. People are outraged by the falsifications at the election but don't know who they would elect or what their political demands are."

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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