Russia’s Fading Tsar

The Article: Russia’s Fading Tsar by Dakota Smith in The Speckled Axe.

The Text: For the last seven months, Russia has been a nation on the edge. Thousands of protesters have poured into the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the country’s largest display of political agitation since the early 1990s. The spark was the legislative election of December 2011 where allegations of widespread voter fraud by Putin’s political party, United Russia, sent a diverse array of groups into the streets.

Putin is more than just the Russian president; he considers himself the personal embodiment of the Russian state and has therefore taken the protests very personally. He has mocked the protesters, comparing their white ribbons to condoms, and has derided them as “agents of the West” who seek to destroy Russia. And via Twitter, state media has even accused U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul of being the hidden force behind the protest movements.

The cracks in Putin’s aura of invincibility first started to appear in 2008 when Putin was serving as Prime Minister. Only a few months removed from his second term as President of the Russian Federation, Putin was a man as big as Russia itself. He had single-handedly saved the country from the chaos of the 1990s and was everything that his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had not been. Most of Russia was grateful.

But the global financial crisis of 2008 caught every nation by surprise and Russia was no exception. The economic miracle of Vladimir Putin’s presidency evaporated like a mirage. The decade-long growth, as it turned out, had been driven almost entirely by record-setting commodity prices. Structural deficits, corruption and inequality had been masked by $100 per barrel oil prices. Suddenly with a sharp decline in global commodities demand, Putin’s legacy was in jeopardy.

Over the next four years the Russian nation collectively fell out of love with Putin. Polls showed that he was still the country’s most popular politician, but it was certainly no love affair. New president Dmitry Medvedev proved to be a capable replacement. Quiet and academic, he was the exact opposite of Putin.

That’s not to say that Medvedev was wildly beloved by the Russian populace, either. A popular joke in Russia was to feign ignorance of Medvedev when asked by a foreigner to give an opinion on the power-sharing situation. But on the heels of news reports suggesting a growing animosity between Medvedev and Putin, it came as a shock to many Russians when in September 2011 Medvedev announced that he would not seek a second term as President, therefore opening the door for Putin’s return.

Denied the opportunity to choose between the two men as their next president, the conditions were ripe for public discontent. The controversy surrounding the December legislative elections drove home the point that the government no longer felt it necessary to even pretend that democracy existed in Russia.

Seven months later and the protests show no signs of abating. The first large-scale protest since Putin’s inauguration in early May took place in Moscow on Russia Day, June 12th. Just a few days before, on June 8th, Putin signed into law anti-protest legislation that greatly increased the maximum fines doled out to protesters. Protesters arrested in acts of public defiance now faced fines up to 300,000 Rubles (9,150 US dollars).

The protest leaders had labeled the demonstration as “Russia Day Without Putin,” with opposition leaders estimating the number of protesters at 50,000, in spite of increased government crackdowns on protesters.

While the protests have received mostly negative coverage by Russia’s state-owned media, they have been heavily covered in the foreign press with many Western newspapers heralding the Russian “middle class revolution.” However, Russian author and critic Masha Gessen disputes the foreign perception that this is a petit bourgeois revolution and instead points to polling data of protest participants which suggests a diverse group of ages and socioeconomic statuses. This, she says, is evidence that discontent is more widespread than the convenient “middle class revolution” headline. For Gessen, the most astonishing figure is that 22% of the protesters at a December rally were over the age of 55.

In what may be a disturbing sign of a government crackdown yet to come, Russian lawmakers have recently introduced a bill that would add Vkontakte, the largest European social networking site (think Facebook with a ruskie flourish), to the list of state strategic assets. The state would effectively become the company’s silent business partner, with Vkontakte barred from seeking foreign investors without government approval. Somewhat ironically, final word on this new law rests with Dmitry Medvedev, the nation’s current prime minister.

Social media’s role in the Arab Spring revolutions has been well documented and the timing of this law has been called into question. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s recent “Twitter attack” on the U.S. ambassador reveals that the state is not above harnessing social media to settle political scores, even petty ones.

It remains to be seen whether the current Russian protest movement will effect real change or simply fizzle out. Authoritarian leaders and public discontent are stories as old as Russia itself. But as the lawless 1990s continue to fade from the nation’s memory, it seems clear that it will be harder for Putin to maintain his grip on power. Because while Russians will surrender some freedoms for prosperity, the protests have shown that they will not tolerate being treated like fools.


From The PBH NetworkHot On The Web
Hot On The Web