Protesting against political and economic injustices, people around the world are finding the courage to speak out against corrupt regimes and powerful multinationals. First there was the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement followed soon thereafter. Now, Russia is next.
There has been an unwritten rule in Russia for the past 12 years under Putin (and Medvedev), oligarchs (and the middle class) can grow and thrive as long as they stay out of politics and do not criticize the Kremlin. For the most part, the Russian people kept to this agreement. High commodity prices helped grow the Russian economy.1 From 2000 to 2008, wages grew an average 15 percent per year and, since 2008, wages have continued to grow an average 1.3 percent. Middle class incomes rose 142 percent from 1999 to 2009.2 About one-third of Russia’s population is now considered part of the middle class.3
Despite the new wealth, many Russians are no longer happy with the status quo. Corruption has eroded much of the good will that accompanied the economic growth. The concept of private property is nonexistent in Russia, as property can be taken away and given to government cronies.4 Trumped up criminal charges are often brought against business owners, who are forced to pay bribes to the mafia to get their charges dropped or they are forced to face a corrupt court system.5 Every day Russians face corruption: paying to get their child into nursery, to receive an operation in a state hospital or to get admission into a prestigious state university.6
But this has not been enough to send Russians to the street. For decades if not centuries, Russians have been living under a corrupt regime, rife with human rights abuses.
Fallout of the Russian Elections
A series of events in fall 2011 precipitated a shift in Russia. Putin’s announcement that he would run again for the presidency, switching places with Medvedev was considered one of the major catalysts.7 Another catalyst was the blatant fraud exhibited in the December 2011 Parliamentary elections. Led by Putin, the United Russia Party gained 49.5 percent of the votes.8 Independent observers claimed that 15-20 percent of the United Russia Party votes were falsified.9
Many viewed the elections as a sham since real opposition parties were not allowed to run. Activists were harassed during the campaign season and opposition websites were attacked. Reports and videos of election fraud circulated on Russian websites.10 The three existing opposition parties (the United Russia, Communist, the Liberal Democrat Party, and “A Just Russia”) did gain seats, though they are not viewed as a real threat to Putin’s power. So even though United Russia lost seats, the comeback of Putin seemed like the last straw for many who do not want another 12 years.11
Following the elections, 1,000 protesters were arrested, including a popular Russian blogger, Alexey Navalny. Putin has since backed off and has allowed the protests to continue. Navalny’s blog postings were instrumental in mobilizing young Russians to take the streets. On December 3rd, on estimated 50,000 Russians protested the elections and called for the ouster of Putin. Many of the protesters were middle class and elite members of society, but included people from all walks of life and social classes.12
The December 3rd protest was one of the first times where blogs influenced events on a national level, rather than just draw attention to local fraud and abuse.13 Organizers used Twitter and Facebook, though these tools are not wide-spread and are mainly used by Russian elites.14 The Internet though is used throughout Russia, with nearly 60 million Russians using it on a regular basis. Increasingly political debate is taking place over the Internet, rather than on other traditional media sources that are censored. Nonetheless, the majority of Russians, the older, poorer and more conservative sectors are not online and they tend to show up to Russian elections en masse.15
Adept at social media himself, Medvedev announced over Facebook that he planned to create a commission to look into voter fraud, but little is expected to be unearthed by the commission.
A Russian Spring or a Russian Winter?
Analysts worldwide are not sure of the outcome of the protest movement. Putin has not allowed that much open criticism in the past nor has he allowed real, potential rivals to gain political power. Furthermore, Putin is interested in further weakening the opposition as he is examining Internet censorship systems.
The opposition movement does not yet have any real options to lead them. Mikhail D. Prokhorov, an oligarch and majority owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball franchise has announced his intention to run against Putin in the next presidential elections. While considered a legitimate candidate, his past involvement with the Kremlin and his dubious attainment of wealth through Yeltsin, who oversaw the privatization of nickel mines and smelting complex, does not make him very attractive. Prokhorov has not yet offered a political platform.16
For years, polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of Russians felt they did not have any ability to influence the political process. Many were dis-incentivized from participating and others never bothered. Many voted in the parliamentary elections for the first time, explaining the low percentages attained by United Russia, even with vote tampering and fraud.17
Russia’s problems though are deeper than poor leadership alternatives and political corruption. Pyotr Filippov, a Russian politician and former Head of the Social and Economic Policy Analytical Centre at the Presidential Administration notes the deeper problems plaguing Russian culture. He states that Russia’s civic infantilism, has led to a history of reliance on strong leaders. Strength is valued over knowledge of economics. This over-reliance on leadership and little faith in the system has led most Russians to give up on the political and economic situation.18
While the protests are certainly a first step to civic re-awakening. Many more steps are needed before real change will take place. For now, a Russian winter seems like the most likely prospect for the near future.
1 Iofee, Julie. “The Decembrists.” Foreign Policy. December 9, 2011.
2 Clover, Charles. “Russia’s middle class finds its feet.” Financial Times. December 12, 2011.
3 Kramer, Andrew and Herszehorn, David M. “Boosted by Putin, Russia’s Middle Class Turns on Him.” The New York Times. December 11, 2011.
4 Piontkovsky, Andrei. “The Russian Spring Has Begun.” The Wall Street Journal. December 14, 2011.
5 Zaostrovtsev, Andrei. “Privatisation, but no private property.” Open Democracy. November 17, 2011.
6 Filippov, Pyotr. “Is corruption in Russia’s DNA?” Open Democracy. November 16, 2011.
7 Kramer, Andrew and Herszehorn, David M. “Boosted by Putin, Russia’s Middle Class Turns on Him.” The New York Times. December 11, 2011.
8 Iofee, Julie. “The Decembrists.” Foreign Policy. December 9, 2011.
9 Piontkovsky, Andrei. “The Russian Spring Has Begun.” The Wall Street Journal. December 14, 2011.
10 Nocetti, Julian. “Russia’s virtual: the new reality?” Open Democracy. December 14, 2011.
11 Lipman, Maria. “Understanding Putin’s Setback.” Council on Foreign Relations, December 6, 2011.
12 Clover, Charles. “Russia’s middle class finds its feet.” Financial Times. December 12, 2011.
13 Nocetti, Julian. “Russia’s virtual: the new reality?” Open Democracy. December 14, 2011.
14 Iofee, Julie. “The Decembrists.” Foreign Policy. December 9, 2011.
15 Nocetti, Julian. “Russia’s virtual: the new reality?” Open Democracy. December 14, 2011.
16 Barry, Ellen and Kramer, Andrew, E. “Russian Mogul Joins the Race Against Putin.” The New York Times. December 12, 2011.
17 Iofee, Julie. “The Decembrists.” Foreign Policy. December 9, 2011.
18 Filippov, Pyotr. “Is corruption in Russia’s DNA?” Open Democracy. November 16, 2011.