A True Russian Republic in the Making?
Twenty years after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, post-imperial Russia is beginning to emerge as a nation.
- Over the last week, Russia's political environment has dramatically changed. The consent of the governed is being withdrawn.
- Twenty years after the fall of communism and the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, post-imperial Russia is beginning to emerge as a nation.
- Putin is the first to know that, while he has resorted to targeted repression before, he has never used massive force against true mass protests.
As built by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s political system could be defined as “authoritarianism with the consent of the governed.” This consent, even if expressed merely silently or passively, has been crucial. It was popular acquiescence of Putin as the paramount leader that underpinned Russia’s political stability during the 2000s. Put simply, the public bought into stability and relative prosperity, while allowing the Kremlin and its minions to govern.
This peculiar social contract was based on the Russian people’s focus, in the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the private sphere. The private domain trumped the public domain in almost every way. Inside most buildings, the contrast between newly renovated apartments and the long-neglected staircase could not be starker.
While people knew they were governed by “crooks and thieves,” they did not seem to mind, as long as they themselves were left alone. Not any more.
In any society, any effort to limit individuals’ natural aspirations only goes so far. Growing affluence, thankfully, has a way of boosting self-esteem. As a result, the level of Russians’ tolerance, at least in the big cities, has changed. Increasingly, people are casting off their purely private shells and stepping out into the public square. In particular, Russia’s youth, the first generation to have been born free and raised in a non-totalitarian country, no longer accept that freedom is supposed to stop at the border of the political domain.
Vladimir Putin — who seemed to rise from nowhere back in August 1999 when he first entered Russia’s national stage — appears to have missed this sea change. His brash move to swap positions with his protégé Dmitri Medvedev, although widely anticipated, was taken as an insult. A popular joke now circulating in Russia has Putin telling Medvedev, “Let’s also swap our names, so that they [i.e., the voters] go completely crazy.”
“They,” the people, indeed turned angry. And it is not just, as one might surmise, Russia’s middle class that is expressing its displeasure. At a wrestling event in Moscow, Putin was booed by those whom he considered his supporters. In the December 4, 2011, legislative elections, Putin’s party, United Russia, not only lost the two-thirds majority, the threshold required to make changes to the constitution. It also failed to achieve a majority, receiving just shy of 50% of the vote.
For many people, this slap on the authorities’ wrists, which the polls had failed to predict even a week before the vote, was not enough. Ballot stuffing and other forms of “election magic” in favor of the ruling party were documented by thousands of volunteer monitors. The spontaneous rallies the following day sent a clear message: Putin’s magic had worn off, and his Teflon had cracked.
Over the last week, Russia’s political environment has dramatically changed. The consent of the governed is being withdrawn. Putin is being directly challenged. His election as president for a third term in the March 4, 2012, elections, although still likely, is not going to be a cakewalk. Russia’s future is uncertain.
The presidential election campaign will heat up the cold Russian winter. The next opposition rally has been set for December 24. After that date, Russia traditionally shuts down for three weeks in order to celebrate and relax. This year, the recess will be an important time for reflection and strategizing.
Much like the czars holed up in the court of St. Petersburg in those momentous weeks in February 1917, Putin faces a major choice. Will he seek to mobilize his existing levels of support and try to win fairly in March, thus acquiring new legitimacy — while accepting the possibility, however slim, that he may lose and have to step down to face a string of accusations?
Or will he decide to crack down against those he calls foreign agents, even if that means unleashing violence? He is the first to know that, while he has resorted to targeted repression before, he has never used massive force against true mass protests.
And he knows that, while he has been challenged before, he has never governed without the overwhelming support of the people. This is no longer the case. That means Mr. Putin is clearly outside of his comfort zone.
The opposition faces its own problems. It is indeed a very mixed bag: communists and socialists, nationalists and liberals, radicals and moderates. The various parties representing these forces will not be willing or able to come up with a single candidate to take on Mr. Putin. In addition, most of their leaders have been on the national stage longer than Putin, and most are quite unimpressive.
They do, however, agree on one fundamental thing: Holding free and fair elections, regardless of the outcome, is the cornerstone of a democracy. It has become the minimum level of self-respect. Anything less would be unacceptable.
In other words, the deal now on offer is to have clean elections, and likely accept a reelection of Mr. Putin — but a Putin who, based on honest election returns, will be chastened and far less “czarist” and less self-assured in his overall stance. In short, a president more reflective of the people’s real concerns — and not just those of his own clientele.
This demand becomes powerful when it is underpinned by the essence of democracy, the people’s demand for participation in politics. As such, 25,000-40,000 demonstrators in Moscow, 10,000 in St. Petersburg and 2,000 in Tomsk are not huge numbers, of course. But they point to a new trend: a common cause uniting people of different persuasions.
The full spectrum of flags these demonstrators were waving — from the communists’ red to the liberals’ white to the radicals’ orange to the nationalists’ white, black and yellow — all of this vividly suggests one mesmerizing fact of life: The basis for a true Russian republic is now in place. Twenty years after the fall of communism and the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, post-imperial Russia is beginning to emerge as a nation.