Has Russia gone back to sleep?

By Georgy Satarov

MOSCOW - In just six months, from the end of September 2011 to March 2012, 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? Vladimir Putin and his regime, caught off guard by last winter's massive protests, were on the verge of panic. But, after last month's presidential election returned Putin to the 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, Dmitri Medvedev, proposed political reforms and started meeting with representatives of opposition parties, which also had a demobilising effect.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (L) and the president-elect Vladimir Putin (R) speak to supporters during the May Labour Day rally of the Russian Trade Unions and United Russia party in Moscow on May 1, 2012. Russia's president-elect Vladimir Putin and outgoing head of state Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday joined over 100,000 people in a Soviet-style mass march through Moscow to celebrate the May 1 labour day. AF

The authorities no doubt perceived the decline in street activity as a victory, 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.

But 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. They 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.

But 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 ten-fold, and the entire country has been stirred by the 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, now the prime minister, said: "It is now time to calm down, because the tandem is here for a long time." But, 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."

To guarantee their understanding of "stability," the tandem contrasts the continuous middle-class protests with a wave of regime-orchestrated demonstrations. As a result, the country is now swollen with all sorts of phobias - against sexual minorities, against the so-called "propaganda of sex" among young people, against critics of the Orthodox Church, and, as always, against the West.

It is difficult to predict the fate of such a blinkered regime. What we can say for sure is that only a democratic Russia will be able to survive within the country's current borders. The alternative is collapse, unpredictable and merciless. Fortunately, the awakening of Russian society, the geographic broadening of political opposition, and the advent of a new generation unshackled by Soviet habits of mind and behaviour has given the country an opportunity for genuine democratic reform that 12 years of Putinism had seemed to bury.

But Russia will choose not only between Putinism and democracy. Trying to ensure stability, the regime is awakening forces that it will not be able to control. The nationalism and homophobia that Putin and Medvedev have mobilized against the liberal wave is more dangerous to them - and their plan to swap jobs with each other indefinitely - than the liberals and leftists are.

Russia can go down three paths: democracy, which would preserve the country and provide prosperity for its citizens; the dead end of Putininism; or an orgy of nationalist obscurantism. Either of the second two scenarios would increase dramatically the likelihood of Russia's eventual disintegration.
Georgy Satarov is Director of Indem, a Moscow think tank.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012. Exclusive to the Sunday Times

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