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?

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."

The most popular figure to emerge among the protesters is Aleksei Navalny, a blogger who was jailed for fifteen days for resisting police in one of the early demonstrations. He sent a message to the crowd around Bolotnaya Square that was read by another journalist, conveying the spirit of the remarkable assemblage: "Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need -- dignity, the feeling of self respect... It's impossible to beat and arrest hundreds of thousands, millions. We have not even been intimidated. For some time we were simply convinced that... the life of mute cattle was the only way to win the reward of stability and economic growth. We are not cattle or slaves," he said, "we have voices and votes and we have the power to uphold them."

So, as Putin faces a contest for reelection in March with every likelihood of success (he does, after all, control the traditional levers of Russian police power and the major media outlets), there is nonetheless a significant spectrum of opposition: communists, ultra-nationalists, liberals, and the prosperous multitudes in the young, urban, middle classes that have been most visible in the street demonstrations. Taken together, these numbers are considerable, but as Soldatov and Borogan concluded, "the lack of trust and of any experience of political discussion" limits the collective support for any of the opposition candidates. One intriguing personality is the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov (owner of the New Jersey Nets). He has the resources to mount a real campaign and may be attractive to frustrated younger voters. But this is Russia, and one theory in opposition circles is that Prokhorov who has described Putin in the past as "the only one capable of running this ineffective state machine" may actually have been tapped by the Kremlin to provide the semblance of a political race that will cut into the vote tallies of other candidates.

Meanwhile, Medvedev, in what will be his last "state of the nation" address, called for major changes in Russia's political system. But there was a significant caveat in his peroration. "Today, at a new stage of development of our state, supporting the initiative proposed by our Prime Minister Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, I propose a comprehensive reform of our political system." Within days, there was another mass anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow, culminating on Sakharov Avenue, named after the great Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov. Prokhorov was in the crowd, but didn't speak. A respected former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, did address the throng, offering to mediate with Putin, who preferred to publicly mock the opposition while signaling there might be reforms -- after his reelection. Russia is stirring, but, based on their performance so far, I wouldn't count on the Putin-Medvedev tag-team doing much that amounts to change. When it comes to politics, the Kremlin still favors the strut.