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Did Russian Civil Society Wake Up In 2011?

  • Brian Whitmore

A "For A Fair Election" protest on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue on December 24

A "For A Fair Election" protest on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue on December 24

Like many of his generation, Aleksandr Gorbachev steered clear of politics for most of his adult life.

He moved to Moscow in the autumn of 2001, graduated from the prestigious Russian State University for the Humanities, and ultimately landed himself a good job as a deputy editor at "Afisha," a popular lifestyle magazine and web portal.

"I always thought of my generation as one deprived of historical opportunity," the 27-year-old Gorbachev wrote in a recent column explaining his reasons for participating in antigovernment protests.

"I haven't had a lot to complain about over the past 10 years. I have a job, a career, wealth, and comfort.... But eventually you want to become part of something bigger than yourself -- especially in a territory of 150 million. You want to feel not only that you belong to this territory, but that it belongs to you."

Gorbachev's journey from apathy to activism reflects a common refrain among many of the previously apolitical young professionals who comprised the backbone of the massive protests that attracted tens of thousands to the streets of Moscow and other cities in December.

In many ways, 2011 was the year Russian civil society woke up from its long slumber and found its voice -- powered by a newly politically conscious urban middle class.

"What you've got are the Moscow and St. Petersburg middle classes, who are used to choice and excellence in their private lives, becoming increasingly aware that they are not getting choice and excellence in the provision of public goods, in what the state does," says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern European correspondent for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "The New Cold War."

The disputed December 4 parliamentary elections and widespread reports of massive voter fraud provided the spark that brought the protesters to the streets in numbers unseen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- and unthinkable for most of Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule. But the underlying causes of this revolt, most notably mounting anger over official corruption and impunity, have been fermenting for years.

The increased wealth and confidence of the urban professional class, its newfound ability to organize over the Internet, and a global atmosphere of protest that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States also contributed to a combustible mix.

"It was a perfect storm. And it's one that, I think, was foreseeable. But people in the system either diminished it, or didn't care, or thought that they would just ride through it," says Nicholas Gvosdev, a professor of international politics and Russia specialist at the U.S. Navy War College.

A Victim Of His Own Success

It's not difficult to understand why. Not so long ago, Russia's urban middle class was solidly behind Putin, grateful for the stability that allowed it to thrive even if it meant giving up some political rights. But as was the case in South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile in the late 1980s, once confident and comfortable, newly minted middle classes tend to clamor for their political rights.

PHOTO GALLERY: The best Russian protest signs:
In this sense, analysts say Putin has in many ways become a victim of his own success.

"Putin in 1999 and 2000 laid out a vision for where he wanted to go, and now he is reaping what that vision has produced: a middle class that is more wired and more modernized. Now this is what he has to face," Gvosdev says. "Having pushed for these developments, having pushed for a focus on the economy, having a middle class or at least more of a middle-income society, there are expectations now and people want those expectations to be met."

The mass protests in Moscow and other cities on December 10 and 24 were largely organized on social-networking sites like Facebook and, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Internet penetration Russia-wide reached 43 percent in 2011, with an estimated 60 million citizens online. In large cities, most estimates say it is as high as 70 percent. Moreover, according to, "Russians are the heaviest social networkers worldwide in terms of time spent per user."

The dissent that reached critical mass after the December elections had been building for years. There were large demonstrations in Vladivostok in December 2008 and in Kaliningrad in the summer of 2010, the latter resulting in the resignation of the regional governor. Ecologists rattled the Kremlin with protests to prevent the destruction of the Khimki Forest near Moscow to make way for a new highway.

Whistle-blowers like police officer Aleksei Dymovsky, the "YouTube cop," exposed official corruption in videos posted on the Internet. Motorists fed up with the blaring sirens used by government officials began driving around with blue toy buckets on top of their cars mocking the elite's flashing blue lights.

Entertainers like the rapper Noize MC, veteran rocker Yury Shevchuk, and popular actor Aleksei Devotchenko began to speak out forcefully against the government.

In November, just weeks before the State Duma elections, fans at a martial arts boxing match in Moscow appeared to boo Putin when he addressed the crowd. Many observers saw that incident as a harbinger of trouble ahead for the authorities.

Many analysts have suggested that it was actually Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin rather than allow President Dmitry Medvedev to serve a second term that mobilized popular discontent with the authorities.

Fear Of Reform

In the eyes of many Russians, this was a signal that all the talk about reform and modernization throughout Medvedev's presidency was empty rhetoric. Moreover, the job switch in which Putin would become president and Medvedev prime minister was seen by many educated middle-class Russians as insulting.

A rally in St. Petersburg on December 18 to protest alleged violations in the parliamentary elections of December 4 and government policies.

A rally in St. Petersburg on December 18 to protest alleged violations in the parliamentary elections of December 4 and government policies.

Moreover, Kremlin-watchers say the way the decision was sprung on the public at the September 24 United Russia congress appeared poorly conceived and incompetently executed.

"If that had been the plan, they should have signaled it clearly a lot earlier rather than allowing a lot of people to assume that Medvedev would be around and there was some hope for his legalistic modernization," says Mark Galeotti, a Russia specialist and professor of Global Affairs at New York University. "Whether it was because Putin liked the idea of making a splash or whether there were negotiations down to the wire, they handled that appallingly badly."

Unable to ignore the demonstrations, the authorities have recently made a series of moves to assuage the protest mood. Medvedev has proposed restoring the direct elections of regional governors and an easing of the rules for registering political parties and presidential candidates.

But the changes, if enacted, would not take effect until after the current election cycle has run its course and, presumably, Putin has secured himself another term in the Kremlin.

Thus far, the Central Election Commission has registered four candidates for the March 4 presidential election -- Putin; Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democrats; and Sergei Mironov, leader of the center-left A Just Russia.

None is expected to mount a serious challenge to Putin, and it is unclear whether a potential candidate closer to the protest movement, like attorney and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, would be allowed to run.

What Next?

The Kremlin has also made some personnel changes that at first glance do not appear at all aimed at compromise with the protesters. Hard-liner KGB veteran and longtime Putin associate Sergei Ivanov has been appointed Kremlin chief of staff. Meanwhile, deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's unofficial ideologist, was replaced by longtime Putin loyalist Vladislav Volodin as the official who will oversee elections and the political system.

Surkov has recently suggested dialogue with the protesters, and his replacement with Volodin has been widely interpreted as a signal that the Kremlin may be preparing to take a harder line.

Some argue that Putin's political coming-of-age during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika period made him allergic to any real political reforms.

"He saw an attempt at reform, an attempt to save the Communist Party, bring the whole thing down. Therefore, I think he does believe that if you start making substantial changes it actually can bring the whole thing crashing down. And I think he is right," Galeotti says. "The point is, I don't think he has any other answers. The range of options available to Putin is strikingly limited. He just has to play the cards he's got and hope that it works."

But with the rising discontent and the proven ability of the protest movement to put tens of thousands of people on the streets, observers say Putin will probably have no choice but to reach some kind of accord with them.

"The genie can go partially back in, but the bottle will have to change its shape. You can't force everything back into the pre-2008 mold because that's where you'll get an explosion," Gvosdev says, adding that much depends on whether the protesters -- and civil society as a whole -- can keep up the pressure on the authorities.

"If 2011 marked the reawakening of civil society then 2012 will pose the question: OK, it woke up, now what? Where does it go from here? Does it go back to sleep? Does it get co-opted? Does it break up? Or does it create an irreversible shift that moves things forward?"

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