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Authoritarian Russia Watches As Middle East Unravels

A Tunisian demonstrator hold a sign saying "Game Over" during a rally in front of the country's Interior Ministry in January.
A Tunisian demonstrator hold a sign saying "Game Over" during a rally in front of the country's Interior Ministry in January.
Authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa are falling apart one by one. Even oil-rich states like Libya, Bahrain, and Oman are not immune to the unrest.

But what about Russia?

The ruling United Russia party, which has controlled all institutions and levels of government since the beginning of the Vladimir Putin era a decade ago, is confident in the country's stability.

United Russia Duma Deputy Andrei Isayev said this week: "There will be no revolution in Russia. There are no grounds for that, no reasons." He added that the Russian people have seen that the so-called colored revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan "didn't bring anything positive."

But the mere fact that representatives of the ruling elite are issuing such statements indicates the prevalence of such concerns. A recent poll by the Levada Center found that 38 percent of Russians think the "Egypt scenario" is possible in Russia, while 43 percent think such a development is unlikely.

The Public Opinion Foundation made headlines with a survey that found that 49 percent of Russians are prepared to participate in protest demonstrations, up 9 percentage points from a month ago.

A Lack Of Electoral Legitimacy

Oleg Shein is a Duma deputy from the A Just Russia party, which together with the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party form the official, Kremlin-friendly "opposition" in Russia. He tells RFE/RL that the country is in danger because United Russia has shut off all legitimate, effective means of public expression.

Russians rally for the return of direct gubernatorial elections in Kaliningrad in August 2010.
"The problem today is that United Russia has destroyed all popular institutions," Shein says. "Here's one example: labor strikes. In the last year, there were 200 labor actions in Russia and not one of them was legal. We have a law prohibiting strikes. But that is just half of the issue. Of those 200 strikes, only 15 were organized through labor unions. The rest were spontaneous."

Shein adds that the common thread linking Russia with the countries where uprisings have occurred is the lack of electoral legitimacy.

"The entire country can't work for a group of thieves. Sooner or later, such a system must collapse," Shein says. "And the situation can only be stabilized by one thing -- that is free, honest, transparent elections through which people understand that through this mechanism, they can influence the authorities."

More Of The Same Old Thing

Communist Party Duma Deputy Sergei Obukhov agrees that fair elections and other safety valves are needed to stem rising public unrest. But he says that, instead of realizing this, United Russia is using dirty public-relations tricks to link his party to dire Middle East scenarios.

He says that in Tambov, United Russia has published false leaflets bearing the Communist Party's logo claiming the party is sending money from membership dues to support protesters in Egypt.

A Just Russia's Shein, meanwhile, compares Russia to Libya, noting that "the government was in power for 42 years. Yes, they gave out free apartments and free cars. A liter of gasoline costs 40 kopecks, if you convert to Russian money. Education is free. Health care is free.

"But people got tired of the same old thing -- probably, most people. And we don't have gasoline, or education, or health care. And we expect that we'll get by without unrest?"

No Pressure-Release Valve

At the same time, the global unrest has given Russia's rulers some respite in the form of higher oil prices. The revenues from oil sales are a boon to an economy still reeling from the global economic crisis. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has said the windfall should be sufficient to balance the budget by 2014.

However, Kudrin also has warned that the lack of fair elections has deprived the government of the support and legitimacy it needs to implement painful economic reforms.

"Elections should be fair and honest and represent all of the leading political forces of society," Kudrin told a forum in Krasnoyarsk last month. "Only this will bestow the mandate of confidence that is necessary for economic reforms."

Analyst Dmitry Furman of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe also warns that the lack of avenues for political expression is creating a pressure-cooker effect.

"To me, it is absolutely indubitable that if things continue as they are, if in the future they continue to suppress all legal opportunities to express protest or alternative political opinions, then something of the type -- some sort of Russian variant of what is happening in the countries of the Arab world -- is not only possible, but inevitable."

written by Robert Coalson, with reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov
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