Something amazing happened in Russia this week. President Putin’s United Russia party used every trick in the book to steal a fresh majority in Russia’s national legislature, but that was about as surprising as seeing the sun rise in the morning.
No, what was amazing was how many Russians apparently decided to vote against Putinism in spite of its well-funded sheen of power and inevitability and then responded to the election fraud by getting angry about it. Most notable, a demonstration near Moscow’s Chistye Prudy Metro station drew thousands of participants who decried the voter fraud and chanted “Putin’s a thief!” The Chistye Prudy protest was so striking because police have routinely blocked or broken up much smaller demonstrations in the past, and because the participants’ anger was so explicitly directed at President Putin and his Potemkin party, United Russia.
Of course, the big question is: What next? President Putin stands for re-election just a few months from now, and it’s hard to imagine him responding to this swelling popular frustration in any way other than redoubling his party’s efforts to ensure a big win. The only way real democracy will come to Russia is if it gets carried in on the back of the kind of popular uprising that has challenged autocrats across the Middle East and North Africa this year. As Frederick Douglass famously put it,
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Russia clearly has the structural potential to produce and sustain a nonviolent movement for democracy, and stolen elections have helped to catalyze similar uprisings in post-Communist countries before. Even modest protests can succeed in sparking wider movements against authoritarian regimes when they signal that the opposition is stronger, and the regime weaker, than previously thought. In Russia’s case, the regime’s ham-handed efforts to control the outcome of legislative election have unintentionally helped to reveal its declining power, and the protests over those efforts have already spread beyond the expected liberal redoubts of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Just as important, though, the Putinists have the means, and almost certainly still have the will, to harass and repress attempts to organize that kind of movement on Russian soil. It seemed telling that authorities allowed Monday’s demonstration in Moscow to carry on by the Metro, but when participants tried to march on the headquarters of the country’s internal security service, riot police stepped in with batons to beat some protesters and arrest others. More ominously, the government has responded to yesterday’s protests by deploying thousands of police and troops in Moscow, including the Interior Ministry division tasked with quelling mass demonstrations.
It would be foolish to try to predict exactly where this process will go from here. What Marc Beissinger wrote of nationalist mobilization in the USSR, quoting Jerry Hough, is true of all sorts of protest movements:
A period of heightened challenge events can ‘begin to move so fast and old assumptions become so irrelevant that the human mind cannot process all the new information’–a phenomenon I refer to in this book as ‘thickened history.’ By ‘thickened’ history, I mean a period in which the pace of challenging events quickens to the point that it becomes practically impossible to comprehend them and they come to constitute an increasingly significant part of their own causal structure.
Bearing the difficulty of accurate prediction in mind, my best guess is that Russia now is about where Egypt was in 2005. In national elections held that year, hopes were raised and then dashed that the Mubarak regime was ready to open the door a crack to real political competition. Led by the Kifaya movement, anti-government demonstrations remained modest in size but, for a time, became widespread. The regime soon quashed Kifaya, but the stirrings of popular activism helped to put the country on a trajectory toward the successful uprising of 2011. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Russia follow a similar “sedimentary” path in which experiences, emotions, and organizations that arise from today’s protests and their repression lay a foundation for the popular challenge that will eventually but inevitably bring Putinism’s reign to an end.
PS. After reading several commentaries more skeptical than my own of the potential for pro-democracy activism in Russia, I wrote a short follow-up post to try to better explain my cautious optimism.