A Short Post on the Long Game in Russia

While the recent trial, conviction, and incarceration of Pussy Riot have refocused Western attention on the sham that is “managed democracy” in Russia, the long game rumbles on. Two recent developments warrant some attention as portents of political change on a time scale the 24/7 press rarely discusses.

First, the opposition continues to get organized. On the eve of the Pussy Riot frenzy, an assemblage of opposition groups announced plans for an online election this October. If all goes according to plan, voters will choose a Coordination Council that will try to hash out some of the differences among Russia’s fractious opposition groups and lead a more effective campaign against the “power vertical.” To enhance its validity and heighten the contrast with politics as usual, the intra-opposition election will be publicly audited by experienced observer groups.

Second, Putin’s popularity continues to decline. According to a recent survey by the highly respected Levada Center, the president’s approval rating has slipped to 63 percent, about where it stood in the wake of December 2011’s scandalous elections. More telling, though, were the answers to a question about who respondents would like to see in the president’s post six years from now. On that score, only 22 percent named Putin, while 49 percent said they would like to see a new face as head of state.

In contrast to Joshua Foust, I’m not convinced that the elevation of Pussy Riot to Western cause célèbre is a bad thing. The group’s plight certainly isn’t novel, and some of the reactions of their case have been misguided or downright laughable, but the spectacle of the trial and the absurdity of the trio’s sentences may have helped sharpen many outsiders’ understanding of just how authoritarian the Russian regime really is.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that the Pussy Riot frenzy has basically been a distraction from the long game on which democratization in Russia really depends. This episode is to Russian politics what the scandal of the week is to the American presidential race: a momentary digression from a process that actually turns on deeper, slower-moving processes which are harder to see and less exciting to talk about.

The fact is, international outcry and diplomatic squeezes will not end Putinism. This regime will not come undone without serious pressure from its own citizenry. Of course, it’s hard to generate this kind of pressure—and, more important, even harder to sustain it—against a president who’s widely liked with an opposition that’s disorganized. Those two variables still tilt in Putin’s favor for now, but the developments highlighted above suggest they are trending against him.

A Postscript on Election Protests in Russia

Since writing yesterday’s post on post-election protests in Russia, I’ve seen a lot of commentary along the lines of this piece in today’s Guardian. The thrust of these arguments is that pro-democracy activism won’t get off the ground in Russia because Putin, the man, remains fairly popular and most Russians are not politically active.

Those facts are true, but they don’t mean that a pro-democracy movement can’t emerge in Russia. Nonviolent movements are not referenda. Russia is a huge country, popular interests are distributed very unevenly across its landscape, and social movements always involve a small minority of the populations from which they draw and for whom they aim to speak. As many past movements show–from the US civil-rights movement to Egypt’s uprising this year–action by small but determined groups can change opinions and make tactical choices that have an outsized impact.

Before protests begin to snowball into a sustained movement, failure is always going to be the smart prediction. Uprisings occur rarely, even in societies with deeply unpopular governments and weak police forces. With such a low baseline rate of success, we will almost always be right by saying, “It ain’t gonna happen.” I said as much myself in yesterday’s post, for exactly those reasons.

But improbable doesn’t mean impossible. The likelihood of unlikely occurrences can still change over time. What’s more interesting than reflexive skepticism, I think, is to adopt Beissinger’s “evenful” perspective and try to think about how the events of the past few days, and the government’s responses to them, might produce changes in the Russia’s political atmosphere that will become the causes of future actions.

On that front, I am an optimist. In a dispatch published today on Foreign Policy‘s web site, correspondent Julia Ioffe observes that, “The feeling of euphoria in Moscow is unmistakable, uplifting, and addictive.” In today’s New York Times, Ellen Barry writes that,

Many young people said this round of parliamentary elections had drawn them into political activism for the first time. A 19-year-old economics student, Dmitri Sherbak, related the story of his first arrest buoyantly, saying it had motivated him instead of frightening him. Dmitri Mikhailchenko, 23, who said he witnessed ballot-box stuffing at a Moscow polling place on Sunday, said: “People’s mentality has changed. I can’t stand being lied to anymore.”

This is new, and it could–could–be powerful.

“Putin’s a thief!” What’s Next?

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.

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