Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Decembrist Uprising

Demonstrators take part in a protest rally against electoral fraud in Kaliningrad on December 7.
Demonstrators take part in a protest rally against electoral fraud in Kaliningrad on December 7.
Throughout his first stint in the Kremlin, from 2000 to 2008, Vladimir Putin was able to count on the rock-solid support of Russia's emerging new middle class. And why not? He was largely credited with creating this class by ushering in a degree of stability after the chaos and deprivation of the 1990s.

Sure, Russians were asked to give up a degree of political freedoms. They could no longer watch the satirical "Kukly" program on NTV -- or any independent television programming for that matter. They could also no longer elect governors or hold public demonstrations. But they were free to make money, buy cool cars and gadgets, and go on fancy vacations -- provided they steered clear of politics and criticizing the regime (see Khodorkovsky, Mikhail).

And the number of people who could afford to do these things increased markedly, fuelled by record oil prices that trickled down and fuelled prosperity that was more widespread than most Russians had ever seen. What was the exclusive prerogative of the oligarchs and their hangers on in the 90s suddenly became available, not to all, but to many.

And for awhile, that was enough -- but apparently not anymore.

In our podcast discussion earlier this week, my colleague Kirill Kobrin, the managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service, made a lot of salient observations about the rapidly changing political landscape in the aftermath of the disputed December 4 legislative elections (you can listen to the podcast here).

One of the most interesting points Kirill made was how much the socioeconomic profile of those supporting and opposing the Putin regime has changed:

Let's look at the important and interesting distinction between those who are now supporting Putin and those who are opposing him. Those who are supporting him are largely poorly educated, poor, and from the regions. The political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky just published an interesting analysis saying the main base of support for Putin's regime [according to the election results] are the poor, the uneducated, and the population of the North Caucasus. This is interesting because if you remember the situation 10 years ago, Putin was the president of the wealthy and the middle class. The situation is now upside down. We are now witnessing the birth of a new Russian social politics.

This, to put it mildly, is a sea change. But it shouldn't come as a surprise. When an authoritarian society becomes more prosperous it is a natural progression for the newly minted middle class, secure in their improved living standards, to eventually begin to yearn for -- and then demand -- greater political rights and freedoms.

We saw this in Augusto Pinochet's Chile, we saw it in Taiwan, we saw it in South Korea and elsewhere. And I think we are now, finally, beginning to see it in Russia. And in this sense, Putin has largely become a victim of his own success.

The central role social-networking sites like Facebook are playing in the protests (see my colleague Tom Balmforth's excellent report on that here) and the role pricey smart phones are playing in spreading viral videos about electoral violations and the street protests are witness to the bourgeois-middle-class nature of this Decembrist uprising.

It is also striking how out of touch Putin and the ruling elite have become with the society they helped create.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's allegedly Internet-savvy president, belittled the videos documenting voter fraud that have been making the rounds since the elections, saying that they proved nothing. The comment is laughable for anybody who has seen these videos. (Take a look at this one of a man voting multiple times, that went viral on election day, for example.)

A report  today in "Vedomosti" citing unidentified officials said the "protests in the capital greatly upset the Kremlin, the government, and [Moscow] city fathers." The report quoted one official as saying: "They are trying to work out a policy...a

If Putin's comments about the protests today are any indication, that strategy seems to be -- wait for it -- to blame Hillary Clinton. (I'm only half joking here.)

"I have seen  the first reaction  of our American  partners," Putin said.  "The first thing the [U.S.] Secretary of  State [Clinton] did was give an assessment  that the election was neither free nor fair, even  before she received materials from OSCE/ODIHR observers. And she set a tone for some of our actors inside the country. She gave a signal and they heard it and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, have started to work actively."

(For the record, in her comments on the Russian elections in Bonn on December 5, Clinton made numerous references to the OSCE report.)

So one part of the Kremlin strategy appears to be to play the foreigner card -- blaming the tried-and-true scapegoats in the West.

Another appears to be to curtail the Internet. The FSB called on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte to close the accounts of opposition figures. Remarkably, VKontakte rebuffed them.

The Kremlin approached the elections as if this were 2004 and not 2011. And they are approaching the aftermath in the same way.

They may yet be able to shut down these protests and get back to business as usual. But the social forces driving this uprising are not going away anytime soon.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: protests,Vladimir Putin,2011 State Duma elections

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Marko from: USA
December 09, 2011 12:51
As Whitmore surely knows, the 1825 Decembrist revolt failed.

Additionally, as with everything he writes, there are some truths and good insights but also (IMHO) some silences or distorting oversimplifications. The Taiwan/Chile/South Korea analogy is one of those. All those were US-backed right-wing dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s. Middle -class driven political eveolution occurred before true globalization (which shrinks and pressures middle-classes in advanced industrialized societies like Russia [partially] is). Secondly, the US had an interest in a successful transformation and helped the process along in those cases. In Russia, there is simply no such interest in a successful transition. The 1990s, with the US assiduously backing the unimaginably corrupt and incompetent "Tsar Boris the Buffoon" (who stole elections quite a bit) was a very good indication of what we want there. Secondly, those societies are geographically and rather mono-ethnic. Again, bad parallels with Russia.

by: NM from: TO-ON
December 09, 2011 16:50
Brian, you do know what happened to original Decembrists?

-Not the most optimistic comparison.
In Response

by: Jean from: USA
December 10, 2011 16:54
While yes, the original Decembrists failed, their attempts started very significant repercussions that toppled the monarchy less than 100 years later. What we have now are the new Decembrists who, armed with smart phones and able to communicate over vast distances instantaneously, have far much more ability to garner support and thus power.

In Response

by: Marko from: USA
December 11, 2011 16:04
Power to do what though? Recreate the Russian 1990s? Create "a vast irrational Canada" (whatever the heck that means) as the angry, but rather incohate Navalny says? Don't think any of that will happen or work if it is attempted. More likely scenarios post-Putin (whenever that is [I still think that he can probably win in March]) are some sort of communist-nationalist hybrid government, a military coup, or Russia simply collapsing with horrible consequences for everyone left alive there and very unpredictable consequences (remember all those nukes) for the rest of the world).

by: David from: EU
December 09, 2011 21:41
I hate Russia. They always stir trouble and threaten everybody. Look at their ally Iran.

Unless we stop Putin now he will start a war in the middle east and a new holocaust will be inevitable.

My estimate is that 200 thousand people will show up tomorrow. We need to support pro-western politicians in Russia in any way possible even if that means militarily.
In Response

by: Frank
December 10, 2011 00:00
A simplistically inaccurate spin offered by David.

In Russia, the more substantial of opposition to United Russia comes from elements who aren't like the Nemtsovs, Kasparovs and Kasyanovs. The Communists and Zhirinovsky aren't a better alternative to United Russia.

BTW, Iran wasn't behind the Taliban and 9/11. In addition, Iran doesn't appear to have been the cause of Muslim fundamentalist foreign troublemaking in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

On the matter of troubling allies, consider the Western (notably American) relationship with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - two places where the anti-Western terrorist mindset has been noticeably nurtured.

FYI, Russia hasn't marched lock step with Iran. Moreover, trends in Iranian society favor the hope of a more moderate situation in that country.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
December 11, 2011 05:23
PUTIN will start a war in the Middle East???? Are you high??? Putin has never shown the least indication that he is interested in starting any kind of conflict in the Middle East, while the west has more or less never let up from fanning the embers and deposing leaders in favour of hand-picked dictators whom the people they rule despise.

An excellent example is the Shah of Iran, forced upon the Iranians after their democratically-elected leader had been deposed in a CIA coup that was a joint US-UK operation to protect Britain's interests in the Iranian oil industry. He was hated by his people, but the west kept him propped up and in power for 25 years. In case your math is as weak as your history, that's longer than Putin will be in power even if he wins the next election and then a second term. But what's the western storyline? "Putin intends to rule for life".

Hosni Mubarek is another excellent example; kept in power for nearly 30 years by regular western intervention, his people tried six times to assassinate him. But now the west is all gaga about Egyptian democracy, as if the idea just occurred to it.

Try not to be more of a fool than nature intended.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
December 12, 2011 00:46
"Try not to be more of a fool than nature intended."

The same should be applied to you Mark, since you couldn't be more wrong! Putin wants a war in the ME even if by proxy in order to drive up oil prices. How convenient that you ignore the fact that the Russian economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas. It's a petro-economy! Russia wants to control Europe's oil and gas supplies AND see the ME in conflict to benefit itself. The reason the US propped up the Shah of Iran is because they feared a Soviet invasion of ME and Soviet control of much of the world's oil supplies. It's not rocket science, the concepts are simple.
In Response

by: Frank
December 12, 2011 09:02
On the matter of seeking turmoil, how about Western neolibs and neocons favoring not so good relations between Russia and the other former Soviet republics for a divide and conquer motive?

During the Cold War, it was said that the USSR desired conflict in the Middle East as a method of expanding its influence, which was (for a good part) limited to arms.

In the post-Soviet era, Russia is attempting to have good relations with the US, Iran, Israel and Syria - not an easy task when considering how some of these nations carry on with each other.

by: Mark from: Victoria
December 12, 2011 15:19
That was a pretty half-hearted defense, if I must say so. Putin wants war in the Middle East so oil prices will go up, does he? What happened to oil prices when NATO decided to step in and establish an Islamic fundamentalist government in Libya instead of Ghadaffi (and if you don't think that's what happened, take a look at the al Qaeda flag flying from the roof of the Benghazi courthouse the day after NATO declared hostilities ended)? It went up. What happens to the price of oil every time Israel says it's going to have to "do something" about Iran's supposed nuclear weapons program? It goes up. What happens to the price of oil every time there's another "Arab Spring" uprising? It goes up. Incidentally, you don't even want to think about what will happen to the price of oil if the "Arab Spring" reaches Saudi Arabia, where they started unilaterally pumping an extra half-million barrels a day last June because they need the money for reforms to keep the restless population quiet. That's helping to keep prices down, but they're still quite high enough to suit Putin.

You're right that the energy business isn't rocket science, and two things immediately become evident - one, Putin does not need to start anything in the Middle East. The west and its joined-at-the-hip ally, Israel, ensure the Middle East remains a powder keg of hostility and unrest. Two, there is a delicate balance in oil prices that producers have to maintain; if prices go up too much, the customer base shrinks in response: people start busing or walking to work because driving has become unaffordable, companies that rely on the cost of fuel such as long-haul trucking begin to cut back or raise their prices, and the market adjusts itself downward.

The U.S. propped up the Shah of Iran because they struck a deal with Britain to overthrow Iran's democratically-elected leader who intended to nationalize the oil industry, and Britain had a sweet deal whereby it essentially ran the industry without any accountability to the Iranian government. The Shah allowed that arrangement to continue with little modification until he was himself deposed in the Islamic Revolution. There was no reason at all at the time to anticipate a Soviet invasion of the Middle East. Russia does control Europe's energy supply; that's what the U.S. is so interested in Georgia. It's the only place you could run pipelines from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to Europe that did not go through Russia or Iran. Then it could offer Europe an alternative energy supply and weaken Russia's energy muscle.

No: not rocket science at all.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or