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The Beginning of the End of the Putin Regime as We have Known It

- December 9, 2011

When I am not writing for The Monkey Cage, I have been known to spend some time studying post-communist politics. I have also written about protest following electoral fraud. Thus recent events in Russia are of great interest to me both personally and professionally. As many of you by now know, last weekend’s Russian parliamentary elections resulted in both a dismal showing for the ruling United Russia party AND major accusation of fraud, including concerns voiced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Protests have broken out in Russia, are scheduled throughout the country (being advertised on social media sites, e.g., here and here) on Saturday.

These developments raise some immediate challenges for our understanding of Russian politics. Is a Colored Revolution – long dreaded by the Kremlin – finally coming to Russia? Are the winds of Arab Spring blowing back to Europe? Might we finally see a true Twitter Revolution (@stopputin), growing out of the fact that the Russian state controls TV but not the blogosphere (e.g., see Jay Lyall’s post from two days ago)? Or is this just a blip along the road to politics as usual in Russia, with Putin on his way back to the Kremlin for 6 (12?) more years of the same iron grip on power? Any way you cut it, things in Russia have just gotten a lot more interesting.

With this in mind, I will be presenting a series of guest posts today on the Russian elections and reactions to those elections written by noted scholars of Russian politics. The first comes from Graeme Robertson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an expert on protest in Russia:

Most people, myself included (just ask my undergrads!), were surprised by the results of the Russian Duma elections last Sunday. But the protests that have followed, in Moscow, St. Petersburg and across the country, should be less surprising. Far from being spontaneous or unexpected, this week’s protests are the result of years of campaigning and organizing by the anti-system opposition. Street politics in Russia began (again) in earnest with the pensioners’ protests in 2005, and grew through the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July 2006. The campaigning and organizing continued after that, first through “Days of Rage”, then through the Strategy-31 events that have taken place on the 31st of each month (celebrating article 31 of the Constitution that provides for freedom of assembly and protest). Thousands of protest events have been organized every year. While the vast majority of these have been small, events with more than 1000 demonstrators have been frequent, and several nationally coordinated events with more than 100 000 participants have also taken place.

From the early days of the street protests, an anti-system agenda has united a broad range of groups with rapidly changing names and a bewildering array of goals. Some of the best know groups include Solidarity, Other Russia, the (banned) National Bolsheviks, Russian National Unity (also banned), Russian March, Red Front, and the motorists organization Freedom of Choice (which is one of the most active and creative groups in Russia’s protest scene). Many of these organizations have extensive and durable local networks that have survived and flourished despite years of pressure from local police and officialdom.

Protests around the Duma elections this December have long been planned, whatever the election results. The locations of election day and post-election protests were widely circulated in advance.  That thousands would turn out in Moscow and St. Petersburg was no surprise. Previous experience shows that there is a large and energetic group of both young and older people willing to turn out, and the numbers demonstrating in Moscow on Monday night (about 6000 at the highest estimate) were no larger than at other big demonstrations in the last couple of years. What is much harder to say going forward is how wide the circle will expand beyond the hardcore protesters and their immediate personal circles. Participation in this Saturday’s events already looks like it might be much higher. According to the website, kommersant.ru more than 47 000 people have already (Thursday noon Moscow time) indicated on social media websites that they would participate. Growing indignation at the arrest of protesters (some of them underage) and the 15 day sentences handed to high profile leaders, long by recent Russian standards, seems likely to swell the numbers further. Saturday’s protests could be very big indeed.

But what would it mean if the protests do draw in more people? The Kremlin is a fortress. Literally. And up to now the opposition has not been able to mount an effective demonstration within a mile of either the Duma building or the Kremlin. This coming Saturday’s demonstration was originally planned to take place in Revolution Square, a traditional rallying point very near the Kremlin and in front of the Karl Marx statue. Karl may be disappointed though. Moscow authorities have already announced the need to conduct emergency water repair works next weekend and have offered an alternative site at the charmingly named Swamp Square, on an island in the Moscow River. Confining the protests to an easily blocked off island is a tactic used against Russian protesters before, during the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2007.

Moreover, the Russian state’s counter-mobilization capacity is extremely strong. Nashi, Mestnie, Moldaya Gvardia and other pro-government youth groups have been organizing large events in key locations in Moscow. On Tuesday, some 17 000 young people participated in a pro-government meeting in front of giant pictures of outgoing President, Dmitrii Medvedev (an unlikely subject for a personality cult if ever there was one!). In addition, more than 50 000 police reinforcements and 2000 additional troops were brought into the city even before the elections. And just as the opposition has honed its tactics in repeated protests since 2005, so have the Russian security forces, especially the OMON units charged with maintaining public security. The OMONovtsy have shown extraordinary professionalism in using force to break up demonstrations and can be expected to be brutal but disciplined in dealing with crowds.

The final key element in this story is the Russian political elite, which to date remains strongly behind the Putin/Medvedev project. Aside from a few high profile liberals who have resigned from state institutions in protest at the elections, Russia’s political elite remains firmly behind the elections and is pushing ahead to the presidential contest in March. In this regard, the current situation in Russia is completely different from events in Serbia, Ukraine or Georgia. There is no credible political alternative to the current administration and defections from the ruling party are highly unlikely. In Ukraine, the Supreme Court refused to ratify the Presidential election results and ordered a rerun. There is no sign of anything analogous happening in Russia.

So it is unlikely (not impossible – but don’t bet on it) that this week’s protests will prevent the new Duma taking its seats, or Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency. Nevertheless, the events of this week are significant. The opposition that was born in the pensioners’ protests in 2005 has come of age, and protest in the streets is signaling the beginning of the end of the Putin regime as we have known it.