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