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Mass Protests Are Not a Threat to Putin … Yet
Posted on Dec 12, 2011
By Ivo Mijnssen
This time around, that strategy appears far less successful. Putin’s declaration that he will return to the presidency in 2012 with the option of being legally elected for two six-year terms has left many young Russians deeply disillusioned and given rise to fears that Russia is entering a new stage of political stagnation. Many protesters in Moscow were carrying Photoshopped pictures showing Putin as an old man presumably still in power in 2050.
At the same time, Russian government discourse has done much to empower educated young urban Russians. President Dmitry Medvedev has repeatedly criticized political corruption in Russia, promoted access to the Internet and underlined the importance of political and economic modernization for the country’s future. He was never able to fulfill the expectations he created with these statements. His admission that Putin’s return to power had been planned since Medvedev took over the presidency in 2008 convinced many that, indeed, Medvedev had been little more than Putin’s stooge. It further undermined the credibility of the government’s will to reform the political system.
Saturday’s protests, however, are seen in some quarters as showing that Russia’s political system can be changed. Putin declared himself willing to enter into dialogue with the opposition as long as it did not violate any laws.
The Moscow city government had issued a permit for the Bolotnaya Square demonstration, something that would have been impossible without political backing from the top. The national government did not ban the demonstration even though it tried various measures to discourage potential protesters. (Military authorities declared that anyone arrested at the protest could be directly sent to the army, and schoolchildren were summoned to take a last-minute exam on Saturday afternoon.) Fifty-two thousand policemen and Interior Ministry troops in riot gear made for an intimidating background, and the police made it clear that they would react decisively to any “provocations” or “excesses.”
Despite all the tension the protest remained peaceful, without a single arrest in Moscow. In other cities only a small number of arrests were made. The state television channels in Russia even reported at length about the protests after ignoring them for days.
The strength and longevity of this new political force on Russia’s streets remain to be seen. The only clear demand that unites the protesters is the call to repeat the elections. President Medvedev has announced that he ordered an investigation into some of the disputed results. It is unlikely, however, that this investigation will fundamentally change the outcome of the election.
Furthermore, the coalition of groups that demonstrated all over the country is very heterogeneous. Other than disgruntled, educated urbanites, it was made up largely of Russian nationalists, radical left anti-fascists, liberals and Communists. Aside from their opposition to Putin, little unites these groups.
Also, unlike in the Ukraine in 2004, in Russia there is no political alternative now. The parliamentary opposition—the Communists, the party Just Russia, and Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s Liberal Democrats—has shown itself to be exactly the kind of loyal opposition that does not represent a challenge to the ruling party. Even if it did, no other Russian politician comes close to Putin in terms of popularity and reach. It is likely that Putin would win elections that were entirely honest and fair.
One thing the protesters have already managed to do, however, is to change the terms of public debate. By insisting that they are not so much against the government as for transparent and legal elections, they successfully articulated popular discontent. Oppositional criticism of the government has thus, for the first time in Putin’s reign, made the transition from the Internet to the streets and to state-controlled media.
This may not yet amount to a “Russian winter,” as some have speculated in reference to the Arab Spring. It does, however, create the potential for a political system that is more accountable to Russia’s citizens in the future.
Ivo Mijnssen is a Russia scholar who specializes in youth movements in contemporary Russia, Soviet patriotism and the memory of World War II. In the spring, his book on the youth movement Nashi will be published by the ibidem-Verlag in Germany.
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