Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s memories of public protests against an established order are long and—likely for him—disconcerting.
In 1989, Putin was working for Russia’s KGB spy agency in the East German city of Dresden. His tasks included recruiting agents. Shortly after the Berlin Wall was breached, an angry crowd of Germans besieged the KGB office, which was located next to an office of the Stasi East German secret police. They wanted files on informants. Putin took it upon himself to confront them. He said the office didn’t belong to the Stasi but to the Soviet Union, and armed men inside would defend it. Some reports say Putin himself carried a weapon. When some in the crowd grew suspicious and questioned Putin about his excellent German, he told them he was a translator.
Putin managed to calm everyone down. The crowd dispersed. But Putin—who earlier in the evening telephoned a local Soviet army unit and was told it could do nothing—must have known the gig was up. East and West Germany were reunited within a year, and the Soviet Union itself collapsed soon after. A seemingly unshakable political order had dissolved, in large part because ordinary citizens had filled streets and public squares to demand its end.
Today, two decades later, Putin is facing a much smaller but still determined movement for change within Russia itself.
On Dec. 24, with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev calling on Putin to step down—as he himself had once done—tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow to protest against the results of the Dec. 4 elections for the Duma, Russia’s parliament. That demonstration followed another by some 50,000 protesters in the capital earlier in the month, also triggered by the controversial Duma vote, in which European observers reported procedural violations and ballot stuffing. Numerous Russians also uploaded videos to the Internet showing ballot boxes filled before voting began. Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, a Russian polling and research firm, says Levada’s polls suggest “high levels of falsification” in Moscow. Elsewhere more than 99 per cent of voters had supposedly supported Putin’s United Russia Party.
But despite this apparent fraud, United Russia still suffered a massive drop in support, officially earning a little less than 50 per cent, down from 64 per cent in 2007. It was a heavy blow to Putin, who will run for president—a position he held from 2000 to 2008—in March. He is still by far the most popular politician in Russia, notes Volkov, but his support is shrinking.
Election results and the protests are not the only signs of dissent. Online videos mocking Putin and his party are popular. And when Putin stepped into the ring to congratulate the winner of a martial arts bout in Moscow in November, he was loudly booed. This would not have happened a few years ago.
The Russian population has awakened, says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Centre at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For about 20 years, since the end of the Soviet Union, the attitude of the vast majority of the Russian people focused on their private domains. They tried to survive and they tried to prosper, or they tried to emigrate. As far as the public sphere was concerned, that was essentially abandoned to those interested in ruling the place on the condition that their rule provided a modicum of stability. That has been the social contract of the Putin period.”
But now this social contract is disintegrating. “More and more people from the emerging middle classes are stepping from their private domains into the public square. This is the sea change that we’re witnessing in Russia,” says Trenin.
Several factors drive this dissent. Many Russians were furious when Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s current president, announced that Putin would run for president in March, while Medvedev would seek the office of prime minister. It seemed to some as though the two had casually worked out who would govern some 140 million people. But reasons for Russians’ malaise run deeper.
“This was never an open-ended, lifetime deal,” says Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, referring to Russians’ implicit agreement to give Putin free rein for a time to restore Russia’s stability and strength. “They expected him to accomplish certain things and then set in place a system that would allow for a successor.”
Russia is more secure and wealthier than it was 15 years ago. Soaring oil and gas prices in the 2000s helped. And Putin’s popularity spiked after Russia’s 2008 war against its tiny neighbour Georgia. But Putin has also presided over a suffocating proliferation of corruption. And he has stunted Russian democracy by seeking to control or crush independent media and other forms of political dissent.
Russians are fed up. And fewer are swayed by arguments that at least things are better now than they once were. “What we see now is the coming of an absolutely new generation, a generation that was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union or at least doesn’t have any memories of the Soviet Union,” says Nikolay Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Centre.
“It puts Putin in a pretty complicated position, because his message right now is that you should vote for me if you don’t want a return of the chaotic and turbulent ’80s and ’90s,” says Petrov. “It can work in the case of pensioners, but it’s not working in the case of students and young guys because they want to have something in the future rather than to be afraid of the past.”
Lucan Way, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, believes Putin’s political strength is more fragile than it appears. “It really lacks any kind of ideology or robust organization holding it together,” he says. “Regimes that are held together purely by patronage, without anything else like ethnic cleavage or ideology or some sort of revolutionary tradition, these regimes are very vulnerable to sudden elite defections which could seriously threaten the regime.”
But opposition to Putin is also disorganized and generally leaderless. “It hasn’t coalesced around an opposition figure. To the extent that the opposition is fragmented, that probably works to Putin’s advantage,” says Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at Brookings.
Nikolay Petrov worries that without a strong and well-functioning political system that allows for legitimate dissent, and without viable political parties that can take on Putin, frustrated Russians may channel their anger into escalating demonstrations and social unrest. He hopes that instead they will direct their energy toward building a genuine democratic movement that will force Russian politics to reform. “The problem is not to replace a bad czar with a better one,” he says. “The problem is to change the whole system, and to exercise democracy not once in 10 years to replace the czar, but on a daily basis.”