Why Russian Protests Matter
from Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

Why Russian Protests Matter

The mass protests in Russia challenging the parliamentary vote reflect increasing hostility to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and have the potential to change Russian politics in a fundamental way, says CFR’s Stephen Sestanovich.

December 13, 2011 10:06 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Russia’s December 4 parliamentary vote has prompted mass demonstrations over allegations of electoral fraud and, in part, due to public frustration with former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s decision to run again for president in March. Stephen Sestanovich, CFR’s Russia expert, says the demonstrations may pick up steam and Putin’s opposition candidates may gain enough strength to deny him an easy victory in the March elections. "One of the things that has characterized Russian elections is a very strong spirit of anti-something or other," he says, and this time it may be hostility to Putin. Whatever the outcome of the presidential elections, "there’s a potential here for changing the atmosphere and rules of Russian politics in a fundamental way," adds Sestanovich.

Do the events surrounding the disputed election for the Russian Duma (parliament), presage a "Russian Winter" analogous to the "Arab Spring" or is that an exaggeration?

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Even if this doesn’t become the Arab Spring, it has already become something very important in post-Soviet Russian history. It’s the first real outpouring of grassroots popular sentiment. It may subside, but it’s probably more likely that it will grow and be marked by greater mobilization, organization, and focus.

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What is often true of post-election protests throughout the post-Soviet world is that they burn out fairly quickly and people figure, "Well what the hell are we going to do now? The election is over, and we can’t change it." This one has a special wrinkle apart from all the other reasons that have motivated people to oppose Putin. It’s not just the element of electoral fraud, but there’s another election coming up right away that can be the focus of people’s interests and dissatisfaction. That’s the presidential election in March [in which Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008, is running again]. [And] it’s less likely the anger will subside because they have something new to focus on. They are mad and they have a way to express it, which is to get involved and deny Putin a first-ballot victory [more than 50 percent of the vote].

In September, after President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Putin would run for another term, you said there would be a lot of opposition to this by Russian voters. Was much of the motivation behind the protests due to resentment of the way Putin pushed himself forward?

Absolutely. Putin’s problem is the problem of any modernizing autocrat. If you’re promoting modernization, logic argues that you should step aside because it’s not modern to have autocrats. But the modernizing autocrats always come to the conclusion that they are indispensible, they’ll be persecuted if they step aside, and it’s too much fun to boss people around.

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[E]ven if the election doesn’t go against [Putin], there’s a potential here for changing the atmosphere and rules of Russian politics in a fundamental way.

I thought that before Putin made his announcement to seek another election as president, that they had a strategic problem in the Kremlin. They had to find a way to make it look not just like the most vulgar, power seeking, self-interest on his part. I didn’t know what that would be, but I thought they would have something to try to take the sting out of his self re-imposition. And what struck me about the way he did it is how little effort there was to take the sting out of it. It was almost a kind of brazen reminder to people that he’s the decider and their views didn’t count. I think that all of his advisers, in retrospect, would acknowledge it was very badly handled.

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They could have had some type of primary vote or something like that for Putin.

They could have done a number of things, but instead they actually said that [it] had been decided years ago, which made everyone think that it was all a trick.

Billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (NYT), owner of basketball franchise the New Jersey Nets and several gold mines in Russia, has said he is going to run for president. Is this a joke?

It’s not a joke at all. Prokhorov was originally seen as what the Russians call "technical opposition"--somebody who runs largely for show or for the purpose of taking votes from some of the regime’s opponents and dispersing opposition votes. Prokhorov’s constituency is the liberal middle class, the technical intelligentsia, people who are educated and Westernized and well-off.

The question is, will he go about this presidential run in a way that is perfunctory, as many of Putin’s opponents have been in the past, or will he try hard to exploit the moment. We can’t say for sure, but one of the things that is interesting about the way the Kremlin has treated Prokhorov is they really made life difficult for him after he emerged as a leader of this kind of liberal party called Right Cause. They ultimately conspired in ousting him as the leader. So he’s mad or has every reason to be mad, as do many of the other opponents whom Putin will face in the election.

So you think this election will actually be rather interesting?

It’s going to be very interesting. That doesn’t mean Putin will lose, but one of the things definitely on people’s minds now is this: Is there a way that the other people running in the first round could get 50 percent of the vote and deny Putin an outright victory? Putin has won twice in the first round in 2000 and 2004, but this time you’ve got half a dozen candidates who could plausibly get in the neighborhood of 10 percent. Some of them are plausible, by no means guaranteed, for 20 percent.

They include Prokhorov, Gennady Zyuganov the Communist leader, [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky [of the Liberal Democrats] who may or may not decide to run. There’s the leader of Just Russia, Sergey Mironov, who is not a giant among politicians and whose party was created in the spirit of technical opposition but who’s been pushed aside by the Kremlin too. He is probably mad too. There is Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of Yabloko, which is the longest-standing party of the democratic intelligentsia. These are all people who in a bad year could get as little of 5 percent of the vote, but in a good year with a tide of anti-Putinism rising, can aspire to more than that. So if you add up the numbers that all these candidates can get--we haven’t even mentioned some of the other people that are possible candidates--you can imagine 50 percent. That’s really a shock for the Putin people. I’m sure they are looking at these numbers and trying to figure out if they’re in serious jeopardy of not winning in the first round, and this is quite a plausible scenario.

So how does it work? If one person doesn’t get more than 50 percent, then the person who’s second highest runs against him in the second round?

That’s right. That’s what Yeltsin had to do in 1996 when he ran against Zyuganov. It was thought there was a certain amount of hanky panky in the vote count. A lot of Russians will tell you today that it probably would have been better for the country if Zyuganov had won. I don’t share that view, but I know a lot of genuine democrats who have that view. For Putin’s people, that memory is sobering, because they are worrying that in a second round, if Putin has just one other candidate, an awful lot of Russians might just simply vote against Putin.

Putin has made much of his Orthodox belief. But for all of his going to church and having his special spiritual adviser, he doesn’t get any loyalty from the church when the chips are down.

One of the things that has characterized Russian elections is a very strong spirit of anti-something or other. Putin’s real political genius was to identify some cause, some antagonism that would mobilize people. His first campaign was hostility toward Chechen separatism, and in the second campaign it was hostility to the oligarchs [billionaires] and in the third, the one that Medvedev won, it was actually, hostility to the West. Maybe now it will be hostility to Putin, that’s what the Putin people are afraid of.

So Putin’s reelection as president is not guaranteed?

This is a campaign that has all sorts of question marks ahead, but the one thing we know right now is there is a tide of anti-Putinism. We don’t know how high it will go, but we know that there are a lot of candidates out there who see this as their big moment in politics and the moment where Putin could be humiliated. Even if Putin wins but does so with a greatly reduced vote, there will first of all be protests against the results and claims that they were falsified; there will be a sense that his aura and authority have been deflated. So even if the election doesn’t go against him, there’s a potential here for changing the atmosphere and rules of Russian politics in a fundamental way.

The Orthodox Church has criticized apparent corruption in the parliamentary elections (NYT). Is that significant?

Putin has made much of his Orthodox belief. But for all of his going to church and having his special spiritual adviser, he doesn’t get any loyalty from the church when the chips are down. It shows you a lot of people are distancing themselves from the Putin regime. One should not write Putin off; this is a guy who commands all the resources for winning an election, but he may not demand the resource that counts the most this time--what in American politics we call the "Big Mo"[Momentum].

The Economist compared Putin’s situation with that of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, where the upper middle-class intellectuals finally decided they don’t need this autocrat anymore, and they rejected his bid to stay in power for life.

A Russian friend of mine about six months ago predicted that there would be more significant opposition to Putinism in this round of elections, and I said to him: "I don’t get it. How can that be when you’ve got so much prosperity, so many people who have benefited from Putin’s rule?" He said, "You know, that’s easy. Our politics isn’t about economics, it’s about legitimacy."

Putin blamed the demonstrations on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (AP), which backfired on him and became a source of ridicule. Should Americans keep quiet about the upcoming elections?

They shouldn’t try to get into the middle of it or pretend as though we invented it. Some of the same caution that the Obama administration showed during the Tahrir Square demonstrations [in Egypt] probably makes some sense here, but you can go too far with that.

The administration’s view should not be that we are standing aside from all of this because the outcome is of no interest to other countries. Their view should be that Russia, like any country in Europe, has taken on an obligation to run itself democratically, and other countries that have taken on those obligations will be watching to see how well Russia will fulfill them.


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