Following the Duma election on December 4, 2011, the political situation in Russia changed fundamentally. On the night of December 5, about 5,000 people went out in the streets. On December 10, there were almost 50,000, and two weeks later, around 120,000. The progression is obvious, in stark contrast to the routine rallies of the opposition in central Moscow over the previous several years, which attracted no more than a few hundred people. Thus, the protest momentum has been sustained, despite the winter weather. It continued to embrace all the major population centers, although the number of demonstrators outside of Moscow ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand in each case. The movement remained very broad-based, and included people of different persuasions, from liberals to ultranationalists. The protests also kept their peaceful character, with the demonstrators maintaining order and the police apparently under orders to refrain from employing forceful measures.

Since December 24 it has become clear that the protests were not a one-off event, contrary to what quite a few people had thought, and many in the Kremlin had hoped. It is also evident that the protest movement is still on the rise and can gather even more people in the future. The prospect of a million-strong vigil lasting through the presidential election night on March 4, 2012, has ceased to be impossible. This has raised, for the first time in nearly twenty years, the possibility of mass upheaval capable of threatening the very system of power. December 24, 2011, has made it clear that 2012 is going to be a momentous year in Russian politics, with unpredictable outcomes, giddying promises, and potentially dangerous consequences.

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. He had been with the center since its inception. He also chaired the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.
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At first glance, the protest movement emerged as a reaction to the rigging of the December 4 parliamentary election. Thus, fair elections was the protesters’ unifying battle cry. Many of them demanded the holding of new elections to the State Duma and the postponement of the presidential poll, set for March 4. Specifically, they called for the removal of the chair of the Central Electoral Commission. The more radical groups called for Putin’s departure from the political scene. The more thoughtful people in the opposition milieu conceded that simply replacing the head of the regime will not solve Russia’s problems, and suggested that a major constitutional change away from a neo-czarist system to one that securely prohibits anyone’s monopoly on power would be necessary.

The discontent that has been displayed so far is largely driven by the new urban middle classes, and their highest concentration by far is found in Moscow. These largely successful professional people have learned to respect themselves, and they want the authorities to respect their dignity and civic rights as well. Members of this class are generally young, well educated, Internet savvy, and have little memory of the Soviet past and virtually none of the paralyzing fear inherent in the Soviet era. They are flanked by the members of “old” liberal intelligentsia and the assortment of non-system opposition groups spanning the entire ideological spectrum. Outside of Moscow, most of these people live in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and several other large urban centers.

Interestingly, the December 24 protests did not include members of the Russian Communist Party, KPRF, who held their own rally in Moscow on December 17. Social themes were rather muted among the relatively prosperous December 24 protesters, whose demands were mostly political. It is also important to remember that, though the protesters are making headlines, there is a silent majority in Russia, who are still preoccupied with their own private matters, are politically apathetic, usually vote for the authorities in power, and detest Moscow and Muscovites so much that the ring road around Moscow is sometimes referred to as the border between Moscow and Russia. Most of these men and women still stick with Putin, either viewing them as their champion or simply the default choice.

So, what are the root causes of the developments that have struck Russia and surprised a number of Russia hands?

The current Russian political system, which may be called authoritarianism with the consent of the governed, can run only as long as that consent is granted. This was the case in 2007 and in 2003. This was not the case in 2011. Even according to the official count, which is disputed by the opposition, the ruling party received just under one-half of the votes. Even though Vladimir Putin remains the country’s most popular politician by far, and is likely to be elected president again in March 2012, his Teflon coating has visibly cracked.

The main reason for this is that the Russian people, after a break of several years, have stirred again. More accurately, the new middle class has awakened to the world around it. Having spent the last decade squarely focused on their private lives, almost to the exclusion of anything that did not affect them directly, urban-middle-class Russians are beginning to venture into the public square. Many youngsters from the same group that previously did not care to vote at all are now volunteering to spend whole days at polling stations as election monitors. Moscow and St. Petersburg, and also scores of cities from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, have seen their biggest rallies since the 1990s.

Many analysts talk about the unraveling of Putin’s social contract, which for a decade used to guarantee rising incomes in exchange for political loyalty. The reality is more complex. The “Putin contract” has weathered the 2008–2009 economic crisis, and since then, if incomes have not been rising nearly as fast as before, they are certainly not falling. Russia’s government-owed debt is small in proportion to its gross domestic product, and joblessness is not a very big issue. In other words, Russia is not Greece, and big demonstrations in Moscow’s squares also have little in common with the Occupy movements.

Soon after he first came to power, Putin thought he had cracked the code of power retention in contemporary Russia. He had the experience of both of his predecessors in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, from which to learn. Both started as overwhelmingly popular leaders, and both quite soon became extremely unpopular. Eventually, both had to abdicate power, albeit under vastly different circumstances, only to be reviled by the bulk of their erstwhile supporters. The only pockets of acclaim or comfort left to them were among the liberal quarters inside Russia and part of Western public opinion.

Putin consciously chose the opposite approach. He would do anything to preserve his initial popularity with the ordinary Russian people, won over to his side by his resolute response in 1999–2000 to Chechen separatism and terrorism. He would also build on this by reaching out to the part of Russia’s population that traditionally viewed the state as the great provider, and that would automatically respect whoever wielded power on behalf of the state.

Paternalistic attitudes are particularly strong among Russian pensioners, small-town residents, agricultural and industrial workers. These low-to-medium income groups formed the bulk of the Putin coalition, to which a number of others belonged as well, not least members of the military, the police, and the law enforcement agencies, alongside their families.

Some habits are difficult to break. Grigory Yavlinsky, a co-founder and the longtime leader of Yabloko, Russia’s Democratic Party, likes to tell a story about an elderly woman he met while campaigning in a provincial Russian town. The woman sat in the front row and appeared very sympathetic to everything Yavlinsky was saying. Once the meeting was over, Yavlinsky went up to the woman and asked her how she liked his speech. “Wonderful,” she said, “just what we need.” “Will you vote for me then,” asked a beaming Yavlinsky. “No,” came the reply. “You first need to get to the Kremlin, and then I will vote for you.”

Putin may never have heard the story, but he definitely knew that many Russians felt that way. In his practical steps, he did care about that woman and others like her. In his signature “Direct Line” talk with the nation, broadcast live soon after last year’s Duma elections, he said that while all other governments around the world were cutting back on social spending during the recent crisis, his was repeatedly raising pensions and resisted raising the pensionable age. This was absolutely true: Putin always rejected the push from his longtime finance minister Alexei Kudrin to cut social spending. There was one major exception to that, in 2005, when the government “monetized” a number of social benefits, which many people took for an attack on their rights and pushed back. That one lesson was enough.

Putin shrewdly exploited the popular outrage against the wealthy elite, often referred to as the oligarchs, when he put down a political challenge from Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and then moved on to jail him and crush his company, Yukos. By holding the surviving “oligarchs” firmly in his hand, he projected an image of a defender of the “little man,” but by simultaneously refusing to nationalize privately owned assets and following a generally prudent fiscal policy, he won the respect of the business community, including some of the major international investors in Russia.

To preserve a semblance of democracy, for which the Russian people, he must have assumed, are not yet ready, Putin respected the letter of the Russian constitution, while he crafted a very different “living constitution” that was adequate for the real state of the country and its people, and better served his own purposes and interests. He pointedly refused in 2008 to change the constitution in order to be able to run for the presidency for a third consecutive term, instead appointing a loyal junior partner. However, he suppressed the popular election of governors, voicing his lack of confidence in the Russian people’s ability to elect reasonable candidates. And, when necessary, he used repressive measures in a targeted and rather careful manner, by leveling criminal charges against and then bringing the full force of law down on the few people who were capable of posing a threat to his system. Finally, in order to protect himself against an Orange Revolution–style uprising, he sanctioned the formation of pro-regime militant youth organizations.

All this was very clever, and it worked for a number of years. True, a few liberal voices continuously denounced Putin and his regime. Many among the intelligentsia were unimpressed with him. The Western media portrayed Putin as an autocrat, or worse. And, on every thirty-first day of the month—(so, every other month) a couple of hundred people would ritually demonstrate against the government in one of Moscow’s central squares, always without permission. They would be routinely dispersed by a police force, with a few troublemakers briefly detained afterward. Keep in mind that all of the constituencies spurned by Putin had been generally supportive of Yeltsin and, before that, of Gorbachev. Putin could afford to let go of them; he had established a more solid base of support.

So, when did this all go wrong, and why? Putin was slow to see the coming change in Russia’s political atmosphere, but he was hardly alone in his ignorance: Putin’s opponents, and most Russia watchers, had been as surprised as he was. The turning point, many now say, was in September 2011, when Putin announced he would run for president. To an outside observer, that is, to ordinary Russian people, it looked as if Putin and Medvedev had simply swapped places. It all happened exactly as Putin had carelessly put it, months before: Medvedev and I will sit down, chat, and decide which of us will run and become president. What this told the rest of the country was crystal clear: You do not have a place in this. I am the decider.

That might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Even though many people did expect the announcement, quite a few were struck by the crass nature of the “swap.” Members of the middle class in particular, who, unlike Putin’s base, did not depend on the government’s handouts and were rightly proud of their own achievements, saw the authorities’ cavalier attitudes as a slap in the face—and felt the urge to vent their anger. Every social scholar analyzing the evolution of the middle class and its behavior and every political analyst knew that this was bound to happen one day. No one knew, of course, on exactly which day.

Putin has also entirely missed out on the new generation whose medium and milieu is the Internet. His core supporters, by comparison, have often been referred to as the “television party.” After the Kremlin had established full control over the country’s main television channels, and employed spin doctors to work the audiences, it thought it had won control over people’s minds. Some people, surely, but not all.

The existence of a parallel “party,” that fostered by the Internet, had long been acknowledged by the Russian authorities. In fact, in appointing Dmitri Medvedev as his successor Putin sought, among other things, to reach out to the younger generation that he himself either could not or would not approach. Internet-savvy Medvedev tweeted regularly to capture that group, and it seemed that, between the two of them, P&M had captured the entire electoral field, the traditionalists as well as the modernizers, leaving out only the extreme fringe groups.

Had Putin reappointed Medvedev to run again in 2012, the recent Duma elections might have run more or less uneventfully, but his decision to the controls back dismayed those who had put some faith in Medvedev, and, perhaps naively, saw his duration in office as a promise that Putin’s power would gradually wither away. Putin’s September 2011 decision, by contrast, offered the opposite prospect: twelve more years of Putin’s reign. Not only was this difficult to take, for psychological reasons; Medvedev, once a tentative hope, was immediately exposed as a fake and dismissed as irrelevant. Moreover, many of his would-be supporters turned into an angry crowd.

Thus, with many people more affluent than ever before Russia’s history, the level of popular tolerance has changed. The authorities’ traditionally arrogant and corrupt behavior, acceptable even a few years ago, is suddenly inviting resistance. The Putin-Medvedev position swap, announced last September, was taken as an insult, and was probably the trigger that precipitated the present crisis.

This change of popular mood does not mean regime change—yet. What it promises is livelier politics. Parties and politicians will now be judged according to how they manage to represent and articulate various popular demands, rather on the basis of their proximity to the Kremlin’s masters of the game. These demands are very diverse and are sometimes hard to reconcile. Encompassing socialists, liberals, and conservatives; big, medium, and small businesses; major urban centers, small towns, and the countryside; ethnic Russian and non-Russian regions, including the very special case of the North Caucasus: Russia’s sociopolitical spectrum is as wide as the country itself.

The Russian authorities see the protests as the most serious challenge to their power since the establishment of the present political regime in the early 2000s. In principle, some in the Kremlin view this as a matter of life and death. Quite a few are haunted by the specter of an Orange Revolution, Russia style, ordered and orchestrated by Washington.

The new situation is open-ended. Mr. Putin faces a choice between “hard” and “soft” approaches. The authorities might crack down on the protesters, using force against them. This is obviously not Putin’s first choice. He has never practiced wholesale oppression and detests mass violence. He would also have good reason to fear the consequences. While the crackdown option is never to be ruled out entirely, its probability is low, for the time being. The Kremlin hard-liners have begun to mobilize Putin’s own supporters—including among the youth, industrial workers, and nationalists—and set them against the liberal opposition, painting them as “U.S. stooges.” Such a “counterforce” strategy, however, could come close to precipitating a civil conflict, which could get out of hand and lead to the kind of chaos the Kremlin—and everybody else—abhors.

Alternatively, the authorities might decide on a complex preelection strategic mix of populism vis-à-vis the poorer social strata, partial concessions to the protesters, and a dialogue with the opposition. This last option is interesting, but tricky, as it presumes talking with the opposition while trying to divide it, weaken it, and win time to modify and thus save the system.

The Kremlin has already made a few steps down that path. In his annual address to parliament on December 22, 2011, President Medvedev announced a number of policy proposals: reinstating direct elections of governors, which had been previewed a few days earlier by Premier Putin, and easing registration of political parties—again something to which Putin had already publicly consented. Medvedev’s proposals, which are yet to be made into law and implemented, have been seen as concessions to the protesters.

Either repression or concession will be difficult; Putin has never ruled without the overwhelming support or at least the acquiescence of the electorate, which is now slipping away. He may try to both clamp down on some people and soothe or co-opt others. A lot will depend on how these others—communists, nationalists, populists—and liberals adjust to the new situation and develop their strategies and tactics. At best, the outcome may lead to a new Russian republic; at worst, Russia may become a mess.

The protesters, for the time being, appear unsatisfied with what they have been offered. If the soft line is confirmed as the authorities’ main strategy for the future, the Kremlin will not only have to give more, such as symbolically dumping the chief election “magician,” but also have to open up the Russian political system to serious changes. After that, it will be a matter of time when Putin goes. To some within the current ruling circle, such a course is high treason; for others, it is the only path to salvation—including their own. Seeing this, the opposition will try to breach the walls of the Kremlin and to engage some of its towers, even as the authorities try to splinter the opposition. The next few months will be a thrilling period. Russia’s domestic politics is back—with gusto.

As of this writing, most pollsters and observers conclude that Putin will win the presidency. It is not clear, however, whether Putin would win in the first round. First or second round, Putin is certainly interested in being seen as winning clean, and the Kremlin knows any credible charges of vote rigging in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the other large cities would lead to massive protests, and a lack of legitimacy. Putin, of course, has more support in the smaller towns and the countryside, and he can rely on the special constituencies such as the military, security and law-enforcement officers and their families, industrial workers, and the notoriously pro-government electoral machines in the ethnic republics of the North Caucasus and some other territories.

Getting Mr. Putin elected president is still possible, but it will require the kind of electoral brilliancy the Kremlin may not be able to muster. The replacement of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief political operator, with a more straightforward United Russia politician, Vyacheslav Volodin, may herald a change in strategy. Still reluctant to engage his opponents in election debates, Mr. Putin is less cavalier in brushing off the idea. Putin, who up until this point had been the sole master of the game, is weighing unfamiliar courses of action. Those who wanted to see a different Putin in the run-up to the elections may be seeing just that—Putin having to subject himself to a new political environment in Russia, ushered in on December 5, the first day of protest against the Duma election rigging.

The outside world has been watching Russia’s stirrings with a mixture of amazement, hope, and fear. There is a broad recognition that the Russian political system is up to the Russians themselves to fix or replace. There has also been criticism of the Russian government, for instance, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in Vilnius soon after the Duma vote, and there have been expressions of solidarity with the opposition. This reaction was immediately picked up by the Kremlin and used as evidence of Russia’s opposition being a tool of the West.

The developments in Russia are Russia’s own business. It is up to the Russian people to elect those who govern them in their name. Russia is now better equipped for making the right choices than ever before in its history. Many people are stepping out of their private domains and into the public square. Information and views are shared instantaneously and independently across the country’s many time zones. A sense of self-preservation is spreading across all quarters, which works for change, but bars chaos. Russians are also proud: many felt insulted by Putin’s claim that the rallies in Moscow had been organized by Hillary Clinton and her State Department.

As long as the newly enlivened political process in Moscow remains peaceful and orderly, there is no need to “respond” to it and appear to be meddling. Secretary Clinton’s remarks in Vilnius were widely interpreted in Russia as a statement primarily designed for “the other party” in Washington, lest congressional Republicans accuse the Obama administration of coddling Kremlin authoritarians in the name of the reset. Indeed, when two electoral campaigns coincide, they can resonate quite powerfully. Similar statements in the future could be devalued and turned around in the same way—by pointing to the context of America’s own election campaign. European leaders, gripped by their seminal crisis, have remained, by and large, intently interested in Russian developments but publicly silent. 

Rather than telling the Russian authorities how they must manage their country, Western leaders first need to try to understand what is happening there. The year 2012 is going to be very different from Russia’s 1991 and 1993, Serbia’s 2000, or Ukraine’s 2004. Any analogy between the “Russian Winter” and the “Arab Spring” is very far-fetched, and not just because of the climate and cultural differences. Many Arabs hail revolution, and are demanding its continuation. Most Russians abhor revolutions; the word itself is widely reviled—and feared. This is not the case of an ancien régime being overthrown by a broad democratic movement that draws its inspiration from the United States and Europe. Today, Russia, in terms of its national capacity and international importance, can be likened neither to Serbia and Ukraine nor to Egypt and Tunisia.

Thus, Western leaderships need to use whatever influence they have to encourage the continued peacefulness and orderliness of the Russian political process. They need to offer as many international observers as possible to ensure that the Russian presidential election is properly monitored. And they cannot do anything that could be construed as interference in Russia’s domestic affairs. The key word for U.S. and European approaches to Russia in the run-up to the March election is responsibility. This does not equate to keeping mum out of caution, but it certainly does not lay a premium on Sunday preaching. Beyond March 4, there is another day.

This article originally appeared in Spanish in Política Exterior.