Is There a Russian “Spring” Coming?

Newly-appointed US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul was harshly criticized by Russian officials in January for meeting with opposition leaders. McFaul, author of the book Russia’s Unfinished Revolution, was suspected of wanting to “finish the revolution,” as Russian state television suggested. This sensitive reaction by the authorities shows their present level of alertness. Wary of the Arab Spring, the current regime in Moscow would probably like to keep the political landscape as frozen as the current temperatures. The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have few similarities to the situation in Russia, and most people would not want a revolution in Russia. Vladimir Putin will likely be re-elected.

Key Conclusions

There is a dire need for reform, based on the inclusion of all parts of society, in order to prevent the country from drifting apart. The formula “be apolitical, make a living” does not work any longer, just as the old Soviet infrastructure that the country has been running on for too long is reaching its limits. The Putin administration should not see the protests as a threat, but instead as a chance to engage in dialogue. The most urgent tasks will be rule of law, employing measures to fight against the ubiquitous corruption, and the modernization of the resource-based economy. And these can only be achieved with political liberalization.

In sum, the frustration that has been building across Russia found a mobilizing issue in the December election fraud. The liberal movements are growing, but there is some question as to whether they will survive. In fact, Russians want change – “evolution” – but most are not in favor of a “full-fledged” revolution. Non-interference from international players remains an essential factor to give the opposition movement more credibility.


Following irregularities at last December’s State Duma elections, more and more people have demanded fair political participation and a just society. But the vote served only as a spark for open protest. People have become more and more unhappy with the growing social inequality–the income differences are significant and growing, and while income is taxed with a flat 13 per cent, state expenditures on health and education for the general population are shrinking.

Corruption is omnipresent, and the business environment for small and medium entrepreneurs is harsh. The need to bribe someone at every stage of your life, literally from birth to death, is tearing down the well-established Russian system. While Soviet engineers and doctors used to be famous for their knowledge even outside the Union, today’s Russian engineers and doctors might soon only be famous for their purchased diplomas.

This frustration has now found a mobilizing issue: election fraud. United Russia (UR) did not win by a wide margin across the country. A major factor in winning the party’s majority in the State Duma was the autonomous republics, where it was reported that UR received 99% per cent (and sometimes more) of the ballots at a voters’ turnout of almost 100%. These few statistical outliers significantly influenced the overall results in favor of the ruling party.

A striking example is Chechnya, where UR received 99.48% of the ballot at a voters’ turnout of 97%. The republic’s leader Ramzan Kadyrow recently claimed Mr. Putin to be the only worthy candidate for presidency, and advised his opponents not to run in the election in the first place. Consequently, a similar result can be expected in the upcoming presidential elections. But even without the “help” from Mr. Kadyrow and others, Putin is likely to win the presidential elections in the first round. Right after the protests following the Duma elections, his popularity sunk to 42%; however, it rose to 52% in mid-January, and, according to the same poll, is likely to go as high as 57% on Election Day.

Why a “Russian Spring” is Unlikely

Interestingly enough, after cracking down on the first small protests after the elections, the Kremlin did not use force against the big demonstrations that followed. One might argue that Putin has realized the real danger of an escalation that would be hard to get back under control. A further indicator would be that the administration allowed legal protest marches to take place on February 4th, two months after the Duma elections on December 4th, and one month ahead of presidential elections on March 4th.

According to polls, a majority of the Russian population still prefers a strong leader over a functional democracy. But many of the protesters have spoken up against radical, uncontrollable change, and consider themselves “evolutionists” and not revolutionists–wanting changes in society, but not a bloody revolution.

Grigory Chkhartishvili, better known as Boris Akunin, a famous writer and poet, has founded a movement known as the “voters’ league,” comprising of well-known musician Yuri Shevchuk, journalist Leonid Parfenov, and the poet Dmitrii Bykov. They call themselves “apolitical” and, according to founder Mr. Akunin, differ from other movements in the fact that they do not want or need a leader because they are all autonomous, self-thinking people. Their demands include fair elections, real press freedom, and independent jurisdiction. What they do not aim for are mandates in the parliament.

But there is political opposition, including the famous lawyer and blogger Alexey Navalny, who is not hiding his political ambitions. He has also come under harsh criticism for a YouTube video where he advocates the right for gun possession, arguing that the genuine Russian population had a right to defend itself against “cockroaches from the Caucasus.”

Almost at the same time the “voters league” was founded the “people movement“ emerged as a non-party association uniting protesters from left to right with the aim to “restore constitutional standards.” Founding members include Duma member Ilja Ponomaryov, liberal politician Boris Nemzov, the nationalist Alexander Belov, and the chief of the “Left Front” Sergey Udalzov.

But can this temporary alliance of liberals, nationalists, and communists, this heterogeneous opposition that also includes more radical voices that range politically from socialist, communist, monarchist, ultra-nationalists or even fascist and neo-Nazi movements, survive? And what would the picture be if such an opposition was to overthrow the incumbent administration?

For now, the broad mass of people that are most affected by social injustice are not yet uprising – therefore, a revolution is not imminent. It is the urban middle class that is protesting, and many of them want a peaceful change and evolution of the existing system. And slowly the Putin administration seems to realize that those are claims that come from their own people, and that have to be taken serious. If dialogue with the opposition occurs, and the claims made by the growing active civil society are respected, then there will be a chance for peaceful evolution.

Putin’s Homework

Some reforms, like President Medvedev’s recent announcement to restore the direct election of regional governors, seem to speak of a development of reason. Others, like offering free beer and free flights to the European football championship, seem more like a clumsy attempt to calm the situation without introducing real change. And the central election commission’s decision to exclude Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal party Yabloko from the elections, or the repression of the civil society observers from “Golos,” are simply counterproductive.

If Mr. Putin is to remain in power, which is likely, he should address the urgently needed reforms in economy and jurisdiction and the overdue fight against corruption. He might be better off to deal with the “apolitical evolutionists” than with a more radical movement that may be yet to come. The outside world is well advised to not interfere with the protest movement. Russians are said to prefer solving their problems on their own—and non-interference gives the opposition movement more credibility and stability in the country.

David Muckenhuber is a consultant at the International Peace Institute in Vienna

About the photo: Protest in Moscow on 24 December 2011. The slogan reads:”The sun to the summer – Putin to the out” (a play on the Russian proverb “The sun to the summer – winter to the cold”) /Negve