Shortly after Russia's election results were announced on March 4, veteran Kremlin-watcher and longtime correspondent for "The Economist" Edward Lucas told me
the authorities and the opposition were likely to remain locked in a protracted and indecisive struggle for some time to come.
"The opposition is too weak to win. I don't think [the authorities] have the capabilities to do a real crackdown. I don't think the authorities can put them down," Lucas, author of the book "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes The West," said
. "So I think we'll have a long and inconclusive tug-of-war."
On the night of March 5 on Pushkin Square we witnessed the first hint of tug and a little bit of the war.
For the first time in the three-month period of sanctioned mass anti-Kremlin rallies, opposition demonstrators refused to disperse at the allotted time -- and for the first time since December 5, the authorities used force.
So what happens now? Will the show of force galvanize the Kremlin's opponents' outrage at the regime and reenergize the protest movement? Or will it frighten the previously apolitical middle-class -- who made up the demonstration's backbone -- and keep them off the streets in the future?
The opposition abandoned
plans to hold rallies on March 8 and 9 -- but has been granted permission to hold a rally on March 10.
Nevertheless, the vibe in Moscow, at least among people I am speaking to, appears to be that the protest movement is becoming dispirited and is running out of steam.
So game over, right? We're in for (at least) six more years of Putinism on steroids?
Well, not so fast.
What is happening in Russia right now is a lot bigger -- and a lot more interesting -- than attendance at anti-Kremlin demonstrations.
We shouldn't be expecting an abrupt change or a social explosion. And the authorities' attempts to scare voters notwithstanding, there is scant threat of an Orange-style Revolution.
As the always astute Mark Galeotti points out on his blog "In Moscow's Shadows
" this week, the dynamic is more akin to the sociological equivalent of a tectonic shift -- and tectonic shifts take time:
It’s the start of something big. But I’m reminded about one of the common images (or cliches), of tectonic changes. The shifts of continental plates are indeed fundamental in how they reshape the world, but trying to watch them move is rarely dramatic. I suspect much the same can be said about this election. Big Stuff is happening, but that doesn’t always mean gratifyingly quick or dramatic.
So what Big Stuff is happening?
Part of it is something I have noted often on this blog
. Over the past decade of political stability and high oil prices, a fledgling Russian middle class has begun to come of age. And when middle classes develop in authoritarian political systems they almost invariably begin to demand political rights.
And since the formation of such a class represents one of the regime's most visible success stories, and since they are the most productive part of society, their demands are very difficult to dismiss. Sooner of later they tend to win. It's a pattern we have seen over the years in Chile, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere.
Just as importantly, thanks to deeper and broader Internet penetration, Russia now has its first horizontally integrated generation.
Previous generations have been vertically integrated, whether through the Orthodox Church, the Komsomol, or, more recently, youth groups like Nashi.
But with Twitter, Facebook, Vkontakte, LiveJournal, YouTube, etc., like-minded Russians are now able to connect with each other -- and organize -- from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. And they can do so independent of -- and most often in often in opposition to -- the regime.
The process is still in its infancy, but this Power Horizontal
will, over the long haul, make it very difficult for Vladimir Putin's "Power Vertical" to go on with business as usual.
The effects of this nascent tectonic shift were even visible in the election results on March 4. (And yes, I do think Putin likely won a very slight majority -- but not the 63 percent or so he took in the official count.)
The daily "Kommersant
" reported on March 6 that, even according to the clearly inflated official results, Putin won 4 million votes less than he won in 2004 and 7 million votes less than President Dmitry Medvedev took in 2008.
"A general downward trend is natural for a morally worn-out regime," Leontiy Byzov of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology told the daily.
In reality, Putin is faced with approximately half of society that is opposed to him -- and it is the rising half. He ignores them at his own peril.
"Political and economic transformation is inevitable," Yelena Shestopal, head of the Moscow State University's Political Psychology Department, told "Kommersant
." The only question, she added, is "what path the transformation will take."
Whatever path it takes, it probably won't be quick.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE: This post was updated on March 7