The Russian powers that be (vlast) had been nervously preparing for the December 4 elections to the Duma (the lower house of Russia’s parliament) for months. A command decision was made not to overuse “administrative resources” in amassing a victory for the “party of power,” United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya, ER), and its unofficial leader, former President and current Premier Vladimir Putin. “National leader” Putin had prudently distanced himself from the increasingly unpopular ruling party, having placed his “tandem” partner, President Dmitri Medvedev, at the head of the ER ticket. This time out, the Kremlin would settle for a simple majority for ER. The other parties allowed into the race, especially A Just Russia, the Communists, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, are “systemic”—that is, largely controlled by the presidential administration, giving the Kremlin a political cushion. Thus, vlast sought to placate a restive populace amid increasing tensions, which had been mounting since the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008.
Nevertheless, postelection demonstrations rocked the political elite, as Russia’s urban middle class, mobilized by social media, led countrywide protests in numbers not seen on Russia’s streets in more than a decade, culminating in about 40-50,000 massing on and around Moscow’s Bolotnaya square on December 10, with some chanting slogans that only a couple of years before would have been unthinkable, including “Putin is a thief!” and “Putin to prison!” The “non-systemic opposition,” long marginalized politically, had worked together with a rising star in unofficial politics, blogger and anticorruption crusader Aleksey Navalny, in promoting the protests. Navalny himself had launched an internet-based campaign calling on voters to turn out and cast their ballots for any party other than ER (“the party of swindlers and thieves”). Despite the apathy that had marked Russian political life for some time, vlast found itself on the defensive, with the protestors claiming widespread election fraud and demanding new elections.
Putin, preparing to take back the formal reins of power from Medvedev in next March’s presidential election, appeared shaken, having himself been publicly subjected to whistles, catcalls, and jeers at a mixed-martial-arts contest at Moscow’s Olympic arena in November. Putin had already warned that there was a collective “Judas” at work in Russia, one in the pay of foreign powers, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticisms of the Duma election had increased Moscow’s irritation. President Medvedev, reacting to E.U. criticism of the election, flatly stated that the Russian political system was “none of their business,” while Putin accused Clinton of giving a “signal” to the organizers of the street protests. “We are all grown ups here,” said Putin. “We all understand that the organizers are acting according to a well-known scenario and in their own mercenary political interests.” Putin, alluding to past “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union, added that “no one wants chaos,” as in Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan.
Apart from U.S. State Department criticism, Putin had been subjected to a couple of chilling, brash, and irresponsible remarks by Sen. John McCain, who had long been hostile to both the “national leader” and Russia. First, following the collapse of the regime in Libya and Qaddafi’s murder at the hands of Western-backed rebels in October, McCain had publicly warned Putin that he might share the deceased Libyan strongman’s fate. His gloating was not politically partisan: Secretary Clinton had reacted gleefully to news of Qaddafi’s death. (“We came, we saw, he died.”) In the aftermath of the Russian protests, McCain was again baiting the Russian bear via Twitter: “Dear Vlad,” wrote McCain, “The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you.” Thus did McCain bring us back to where the last decade’s trend of “regime change” began: The Muslim world, especially the American “war of choice” in Iraq kicked off by the U.S. invasion of that country in 2003. The war was part and parcel not so much of George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” but of a messianic, bipartisan quest to, in Bush’s words, “rid the world of evil” via global revolution.
Russia had opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq, at least initially. Eventually Russia, still weakened after a decade of strife following the collapse of the Soviet Union and at the time engaged in war with Chechnya (even as Moscow was reeling from Islamic terrorist attacks), seemed willing to “give up” (as Russian media put it at the time) Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. Moscow’s goals appeared to be maintaining influence in the region, protecting its economic interests in Iraq, particularly the possibility of taking part in developing Iraqi oil fields in a post-Saddam scenario, and winning recognition from the West that its campaign in Chechnya was a legitimate part of the “War on Terror.” Nevertheless, the U.S. invasion left Moscow uneasy, as it had been uneasy about the United States establishing a presence in Central Asia as part of the war effort in Afghanistan, and about the precedent being set for selective “regime change.”
Poking the Russian bear seemed to be a major policy aim of the West, in general, and Washington, in particular, as NATO inexplicably expanded eastward, with the ex-Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia eyed as possible members, and U.S. plans for missile defense (which Moscow feared would compromise its nuclear deterrent) moved ahead. Further tensions developed over Iran’s nuclear program and international sanctions on Tehran. It seemed that the Cold War was being revived—a chilly atmosphere that was further cooled by Western support, diplomatic and in the form of funding “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) by Western foundations and governments, of “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union. In 2003, following a disputed election, the “Rose Revolution” forced new elections that brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power in Georgia. The new regime pushed hard for NATO membership, while Georgia moving closer to the West appeared to threaten Russian plans for developing and transporting Caspian Sea oil and gas deposits. In 2004, again following a disputed election result, came the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, this time breaching not simply Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence, but a land deeply connected historically and culturally to Russia. A more violent “Tulip” or “Pink” revolution followed disputed Kyrgyz parliamentary elections in 2005. Moscow was deeply shaken by the events, and the Kremlin responded by tightening its controls over politics and forming its own shock troops for countering a potential street revolution in the form of pro-Kremlin youth groups like Young Russia, Young Guard, and Nashi (“Ours,” as in “our people”), groups that were subsequently used to intimidate “non-systemic” organizations and public figures, who were often cast as Western agents (and often did, in fact, depend on Western financing).
The so-called Arab spring, kicked off by the December 2010 “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia, further excited Moscow’s fears of an analogous event in Russia, with Duma and presidential elections ahead. In February of last year, Putin warned that Western support for these revolutions might end badly, with Islamic regimes coming to power. He pointed to previous attempts to “impose democracy” that had produced, for example, an Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran. “Not long ago,” continued Putin, “our partners came out actively for honest democratic elections in the Palestinian territories.” Putin sarcastically added, “Wonderful! Well done, guys! And it turns out that Hamas wins, the same people you are calling a terrorist organization and have started a fight against.” Medvedev joined in, telling Russian security officials that same month, “Let’s face the truth. They are preparing such a scenario for us.” Meanwhile, “non-systemic” opposition figures began a social-media discussion on the possibility of “regime change” in Russia, while the actions of senior Google manager Wael Ghonim, who made public speeches and appeals to Egyptian protesters via Facebook, caught the attention of Russian officials, as did the U.S. State Department’s initiation of Twitter services in Arabic and Farsi. Putin subsequently slammed the U.N. resolution on action against the Qaddafi regime, deeming the resolution “flawed and inadequate” and resembling a “medieval call to crusade.”
Putin’s reaction to Western intervention in Libya and support of the “Arab spring” was a warning to Washington and NATO: Similar interference in Russia would not end well. By the time of the Libya intervention, there had been signs of a split in the Russian elite for some time, with some backing a second presidential term for Medvedev, a term in which the second man in the tandem would have more authority, with a diminished Putin slated for a lesser role. Medvedev subsequently seemed to waffle on Libya as he and his backers fished for Western support. There were signs that the collective Medvedev was itself backing efforts, already under way last fall, to undermine the ruling party and create an alternative that could act as a vehicle for Putin’s presidential successor. And it was Medvedev who had opened Pandora’s box in encouraging criticism of vlast, as he set himself up as the democratic, modernizing alternative to Putin.
The truly Byzantine Moscow intrigues are too complex to repeat here, but Putin was able to best Medvedev in the elite clan battle. His tandem partner has fallen back into line. But Putin may have won a Pyrrhic victory. Following the announcement of Putin’s planned return to the Kremlin, ER’s and the tandem’s poll numbers (but especially those of the “party of power”), already sliding, began a sharp and rapid decline as the campaign against “the party of swindlers and thieves” gained momentum. Vlast reacted as it always had, by tightening the screws, pressuring opposition figures and mounting hacker attacks on social networking and other websites, while factions within the ruling corporation quietly backed the opposition campaign against ER—and the ultimate aim seemed to be to force Putin out of power or at least into agreeing to new power arrangements. Conflicting signals from on high confused the bureaucracy controlling the election apparatus. In some polling areas, the elections appeared to be clean. In others, ER logged Soviet-style electoral victories. Objectively, these elections were significantly less manipulated than in the past, but an angry and emboldened public would not be swayed by the Kremlin’s concessions.
An apparently Botoxed and badly out of touch Putin was taken by surprise by the Olympic-stadium jeering incident, then by the postelection protests. The ruling political/economic clans had miscalculated, having become so isolated that they had missed what was happening in Russia over the last two to three years. Two factors encouraging the wave of protests stand out: rising expectations during the oil boom of the mid-2000’s, which saw a sharp rise in incomes (expectations that have since been disappointed as economic problems have persisted since 2008); and the repeat of the glasnost effect once seen under another would-be modernizer, Mikhail Gorbachev, who unleashed the whirlwind by encouraging criticism of the party apparatus with which he was struggling. Usually repressed anger with corrupt and incompetent officials, with the brutality and criminality of the police, and with stagnating economic prospects has come out into the open. Anger, at least for a time, has overcome traditional apathy.
At this writing, Putin has about three months before the presidential elections to try to stabilize the situation, while Washington has to decide whether its “Reset” policy of warmer relations with Russia trumps the siren call of world revolution. With U.S. troops now officially withdrawing from Iraq in a war that cost nearly 5,000 American dead, perhaps 100,000 dead Iraqis, tens of thousands wounded and maimed, and the prospect of an unstable regime being left behind as the “Arab spring” helps boost the political prospects of Islam in the region, maybe it’s time to recall an old adage: Be careful what you wish for.