Over the last two decades, Russia has become unfashionable in journalistic and scholarly analyses of international affairs. Whereas the post-war Soviet Union was a pre-eminent theme in specialist and lay discussions of world politics, its official successor state, the Russian Federation, is receiving relatively little attention. Russia today is often seen as a weak, backward, and troubled country that deserves empathy and pity rather than serious concern from security experts. Since the break-up of the USSR, in addition to triumphalism about the West’s apparent victory in the Cold War, a fatigue about the potential threat still emanating from Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal has spread among political pundits. Russian affairs appear to belong to the 20th rather than 21st century. They are often perceived as dated and boring in comparison to new, fascinating phenomena such as the rise of China and India, international terrorism, and cyber warfare. Russia is still considered in scenarios concerning the future of humanity. But more often than not, it is listed merely as one of the BRIC or G-20 countries – its membership in the G-8 being treated as an oddity rather than a manifestation of Russia’s significance. Moscow’s sometimes unconstructive behavior in the UN Security Council and generally erratic foreign policies further increase the perception of Russia as a sometimes frightening, but mostly pathetic ghost from the past.

The Relevance of Recent Events in Moscow

That Russia still has a dysfunctional socio-economic and unconsolidated political system, and that it is thus hardly a Great Power is doubtlessly true. However, an unprejudiced look at today’s world also reveals that Russia still is and will remain key to the future of the world’s Northern hemisphere in general and the Euro-Asian space in particular. Russia’s stability, responsiveness, and cooperation are crucial in issues of non-proliferation, energy security, environmental protection, the balancing of China, and the containment of Islamic fundamentalism. The most important international aspect of Russia’s further development is its role in Eastern Europe and its related future relationship with the European Union. The attention of European politicians and experts is currently absorbed by the Euro crisis and reconfiguration of the EU's institutions. However, there are equally topical or even more salient questions for the continent’s future further to the east: How will Russia, the world’s largest country, develop domestically? How will it, in the future, relate to the other post-Soviet states, above all Ukraine, as well as to organizations such as the EU, NATO, OSCE and Council of Europe?

The Russian-Georgian War has given a glimpse of what a worst-case scenario could look like. Moscow’s military response to Tbilisi’s intervention in South Ossetia in August 2008 might have had some justification. However, Russia’s simultaneous occupation of Abkhazia where no military escalation had happened, and the Kremlin’s blatant disregard of the 2008 Medvedev-Sarkozy Agreement's key provision about the withdrawal of troops from the two Georgian break-way regions are troublesome signs. They indicate that the current Russian leadership neither accepts the status quo in the post-Soviet region, nor feels bound by top-level political agreements with the West. This, in turn, suggests that the entire current political and legal arrangement of the post-communist world may be standing on shaky ground. It could quickly collapse in the case of a Russian crisis, with unforeseeable consequences across the entire Northern part of the Eurasian continent.

Russia has long borders with a number of states either undergoing or awaiting socio-political transformation, including Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, China and North Korea. It is also involved in the domestic affairs of other transition countries like Moldova, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, that have no direct borders with Russia but whose politics could affect or be affected by Russian domestic affairs. Whatever happens inside Russia, given its multiple international conjunctions, is bound to have direct or indirect effects beyond its borders. Against this background, high attention to the evolution of Russia’s political regime, the composition and ideology of its leadership, as well as developments in Russian public opinion and civil society continue to be critical to an adequate understanding of the fate of Europe and the world. The recent destabilization of Russia's authoritarian regime may have repercussions going far beyond Russia’s borders and thus should be of interest to more than just post-Sovietologists.

So far, it is unclear what the outcome of the current upheaval in Moscow will eventually be. It seems already obvious, however, that Russian politics is changing. Whether Russia indeed becomes more democratic and free as a result of the growing protests remains to be seen. Nonetheless, speaking of a serious attempt to make a so-called Color Revolution in Russia is already justified. To be sure, neither would Russia’s possible White Revolution be a real revolution, nor were the previous post-communist Color Revolutions fully fledged revolutionary upheavals - rather they were particularly impressive anti-authoritarian mass actions of civic disobedience. Yet now exists in Russia the typical pattern of large protests after a falsified election that partly delegitimizes the incumbent leadership, if not the entire regime. This sequence is similar to, though not yet identical with, what happened in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and perhaps the Arab world more recently. Why is the Putin system, which looked stable as recently as a year ago, currently failing? Additionally, what are the risks for the re-emerging democratic movement in Russia?

The “Power Vertical” and Corruption

Arguably, Putin made one major strategic and one crucial tactical mistake. Strategically, Putin’s preeminent failure was that his “vertical of power” did not fulfill one of its major purposes: to end, or at least limit, corruption in post-Soviet Russia. Instead, of producing a modernizing authoritarianism along the lines of post-war South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore, Putin’s rule deepened rather than erased certain pathologies of late Soviet and early post-Soviet society. Above all, it did not reduce the massive bribes that go on in all spheres of Russian public life. Corruption seems to have become a problem even for the security organs that grew out of the KGB, from where Putin once came.

This failure has discredited the rationale of Putin’s contract with society. Instead of trading political freedom for effective governance, the “national leader” took away the political rights of the Russian people without delivering what he had promised in exchange. Neither did he end the collusion between the state and the so-called “oligarchs,” nor did he fight bureaucratic arbitrariness effectively. It is no accident that one of the leaders of the current protest movement, the moderate nationalist Alexei Navalnyi, initially made himself a name by blogging about prominent corruption cases in Russia’s elite. 

The Orange Revolution and Conspirology

The major tactical blunder of Putin and his assistants was that they refused to comprehend the reasons and nature of the post-Soviet Color Revolutions, above all of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, or at least drew the wrong lessons from them. Putin and Co. should have been alerted by how quickly and easily Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s semi-authoritarianism was brought down in 2004 by the citizens of “Little Russia,” as Ukraine is sometimes labeled in “Great Russia.” One suspects that the reason for Putin’s obvious misunderstanding of the Orange Revolution as a US-inspired upheaval had to do with the Kremlin's massive personal and financial investment in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections. The Orange Revolution was blatantly misrepresented in Russian mass media as the result of cunning manipulations by Western intelligence services and political foundations.

Indeed, a number of Western and other international organizations - from the US National Endowment for Democracy to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – did play their role in securing both the discovery and publicity of the electoral falsifications, as well as the peacefulness and effectiveness of the following protests. However, this Western support – largely going to Ukrainian NGOs rather than parties – played at most a catalyzing role. The main problem was the November 2004 presidential election round itself; the purpose of much of the following talk about the West’s role in the 2004 Ukrainian events was to distract from this. As Yanukovych’s victory and Tymoshenko’s loss (as well as Yushchenko's humiliation) in the largely fair 2010 presidential elections has shown, the West is neither able nor willing to secure the victory of a pro-Western candidate against the will of a country’s population.

The rhetoric coming from Putin and his propagandists about the 2004 Orange Revolution as a Western operation was designed to cover the Russian leadership’s failure to prevent the rise to power of the pro-Western faction of the Kyivan elite and a new democratization attempt in Ukraine. Eventually, the neo-Soviet Russian leaders – like the Soviet ones before – fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda. Once Putin and his ideologists entered the allegation of the West’s major role in Ukraine’s mass action of civil disobedience into Russian political discourse, the idea took a life of itself. Since then, it has been widely popularized and creatively elaborated upon by Russia’s numerous conspiracy theorists, political sensationalists, and ultra-nationalist publicists. As a result, the Russian journalistic and academic analyses of the social foundations and political pre-conditions of the post-Soviet world’s various electoral upheavals have been thoroughly corrupted.

The lesson for the Kremlin should have been to open Russia’s political system, broaden its social base, and soften the authoritarian rule. Instead, Putin “modernized” his autocracy in the opposite direction.

In the immediate aftermath of the Orange Revolution in 2005, a whole array of new institutions, organizations, and concepts were introduced in Russia - some of them similar to propaganda instruments of totalitarian regimes. These innovations included various youth organizations such as “Nashi” (Ours), the Young Guard of United Russia, the Eurasian Youth Union, “Molodaia Rossiia” (Young Russia), “Mestnye” (The Locals), and new state TV stations such as the English-language “Russia Today,” Orthodox “Spas” (Saviour) or military “Zvezda” (The Star) cable channels. They also included the so-called Public Chamber as a transmission belt between the Russian authoritarian state and semi-autonomous intellectual elite, and the Day of Unity holiday on November 4th, which was quickly hijacked by Russia’s extreme nationalists and their “Russian Marches.”

It is remarkable that all of these and some other new initiatives took effect in 2005, the year that followed the November-December 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Most prominently, Putin’s chief behind-the-scenes schemer Vladislav Surkov introduced the concept of “sovereign democracy” in the spring of 2005. This misnomer became the ideological centerpiece of the Putin regime’s world-view and purported that Russian political stability is threatened by foreign rather than domestic factors. Much of the post-Orange rhetoric of Putin and his collaborators consisted of anti-Western hysteria, imperial megalomania, neo-Soviet conservatism, and nationalist jingoism.

The Russian Democratic Tradition

In addition to letting themselves get distracted by their own propaganda, Putin and Co. also “oversaw” that the idea of democracy is surely weak, but not rootless in Russia. The Russian democratic tradition goes as far back as December 1825 when a group of young Russian aristocrats, who became known as “the Decembrists,” unsuccessfully tried to end Russian autocracy. In the 19th and early 20th century, this democratic tradition was continued by the Westernizers (and, partly, even by the Slavophiles), social revolutionaries, social democrats (Mensheviki), as well as constitutional democrats of the declining Tsarist regime. During Soviet rule, the Men of the Sixties (“shestidesiatniki”) within the Soviet intellectual elite, the anti-Soviet human rights activists of the 1960s-1970s, and so-called “informals” of the glasnost-induced Soviet civic movement of the late 1980s helped to prepare Russia’s democratization that started around 1990 as a result of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Most of the older activists of the current protest movement were either themselves members or have been inspired by the ideas, spirit and activities of this earlier generation of late Soviet and early post-Soviet democrats. Symbolically, the demonstration on December 24, 2011 took place on a Moscow street named after Andrei Sakharov, Soviet Russia’s most prominent human rights activist, who shortly before his death, played a role in bringing down the communist system in 1989.

While the historical rootedness of the current protests may look encouraging, the actual history of the Russian democratic movement is not. Whether in 1825, 1905-1918 or 1987-1999, all of Russia’s democratization attempts failed miserably in the end. The current re-democratization drive may become victim to factors similar to those which subverted; for instance, Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s introduction of political pluralism: disunity among the liberals, division between extra-systemic moderates and intra-systemic reformers, anti-Western paranoia, and imperial nationalism.

The Challenges of the White Revolution

First, like during the first post-Soviet democratization attempt 20 years ago, Russia's democratic movement today is not too small, but too multifarious. It has too many rather than too few parties, leaders and factions. Its activists are too proud, too full of themselves and too intellectual to unite with each other across the democratic spectrum for a real fight for political power. Instead, we see again a proliferation of options, organizations, leaders, and programs, much like in the 1990s when Grigory Yavlinsky became infamous for his pseudo-politics: always high on ethics and analysis, but never of much consequence. Like Yavlinsky back then, many of today's liberals think that being a politician means making many moralistic announcements, having one's own little party, posing as a chairperson of some organization, getting as much Western exposure as possible, and being interviewed by many international journalists. In short, many Russian democrats seem to mistake public activity, civic action and media buzz for politics proper. Were they real politicians, they would be busier with activities of a different kind: creating coalitions, seeking political partners, building regional organizations, and reaching for suitable contacts in the authoritarian regime. In short, they should be preparing to take over power instead of being engaged in endless self-promotion, sometimes, at the expense of their ideologically close colleagues. One fears that as in 1917 or the 1990s, Russia’s democratic movement will again become victim to its disunity, and the personal ambitions of its leaders.

Second, historically, transitions to democracy have happened when the moderates within a rising anti-authoritarian movement were able to link with and generate support from the reformist wing of the old regime. For instance, in late Soviet Russia, an alliance between reformers in the communist party leadership, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexander Yakovlev and others on one side, with the informal, democratic movement outside the existing structures on the other side, was required to produce the proto-democracy of the 1990s. This implies that internal cohesion alone is not enough for the Russian liberal movement today. It also needs to seek and find allies inside the state apparatus, including the highest echelons of power. Without such an alliance, the most likely outcome of the current protests will be either the survival of the current regime, with perhaps some modifications, or its replacement with another authoritarian regime, as happened in 1917.

Of course cooperation with representatives of the current status quo is a complicated issue, at least within the context of the specific culture of Russia’s liberal milieu. Both the December demonstrators and the liberal party leaders like to proceed from a "purist" position: no collaboration with anybody tainted with or even suspected of cooperating with the current authorities on the federal level. While such purism may look principled and consistent, it is not pragmatic and represents an ultimately anti-political attitude. The purpose of political activity is the acquisition of positions in the state and use of this power to change, in one way or another, the lives of the people. Politics is not only about the defense of ethical principles and exposure of consistent behavior. The success of politicians is measured by what they eventually achieve, rather than by how they behave and what they promise. Politicians in supposedly democratic Western societies display opportunism on an almost daily basis in order to first gain power and then be able to exert some impact on society by adopting laws and implementing them through broad coalitions. Without some flexibility, nothing may actually happen.

The liberals’ refusal to look for partners in the regime might have to do less with the specifics of the authoritarian regime in Russia than with peculiar, decades-old pathologies of Russian intelligentsia culture. The lesson from both Russia’s own past and relevant international experience is quite clear: Without an effective alliance between the moderates of the protest movement on one side, and the reformers in the old regime on the other, there will be no democratization. One can only hope that Russia’s liberals can finally free themselves from the “Yavlinsky Syndrome” and from the defects of the intelligentsia culture that have hampered the Russian democratic movement for almost 150 years now. Russian liberalism will have to transform itself from a merely intellectual and civic movement into a properly political one. Who is in the liberal-democratic camp and who is out should be determined by the political views, record and relevance of a person, and not by private animosities and anti-political maximalism. The broader the democratic movement, the deeper it can penetrate into the state and the larger will be the chance for success of political liberalism. It would be odd to observe during the coming months and years yet another replay of the pseudo-politics of which previous generations of Russian democrats have been so fond.

Third, paranoia with regard to the West may again undermine Russian democratization. NATO’s expansion into the East and bombing of Serbia were factors that weakened the pro-Western Russian liberals who turned themselves against the West in considerable numbers in the late 1990s. What was overseen at this time was that the major driving force for NATO expansion was less that the Americans were eager to include the Baltic states into NATO, than that these countries themselves were pressuring the West for membership in the Atlantic alliance. In August 2008, Russia vividly demonstrated in Georgia exactly what the Baltic countries had been afraid of and why they had been so insistent to become a part of the Western defense community. Without NATO enlargement, today we might have not only a pseudo-state called Republic of South Ossetia, but perhaps also “The Free City of Narva.”

In 1999, Russian hysteria about NATO’s bombardment of Serbia was already strange since the air raids were significantly carried out by German, French, and Italian war planes, countries with which Russia was trying to build special relationships at the same time. The whole episode looks bizarre today: Serbia has now for months been knocking loudly at the doors of the European Union, demanding entry, although several member countries of the Union had been bombing Serbian military targets some 12 years ago.

 Anti-Westernism, in particular anti-Americanism, is still a major current in the Russian collective psyche, especially in intellectual discourse. It was a major source of legitimacy for pre-revolutionary Tsarism (in spite of Russia then being an ally of France and Britain), Soviet communism, and neo-Soviet Putinism. Post-Soviet fear of a possible Western subversion of Russian identity and sovereignty will most likely be used by both the official nationalists in the ancien regime and extra-parliamentary ultra-nationalist groups to attack the liberal movement and question its patriotism. We may soon observe that anti-Westernism becomes the basis for a rapprochement between Russia’s authoritarian state and “uncivil society,” meaning the multitude of semi-political Russian groupings and grouplets that are impregnated with or openly propagate racist, xenophobic, fundamentalist, occultist, differentialist, and ethnocentric ideas.

Will Russia Become a Democracy?

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Russia’s imperial temptation could become a major challenge to the new Russian democratization. Will the December 2011 protesters of the White Revolution fully accept the independence and sovereignty of the former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine and Belarus? The historical namesakes of Russia’s today would-be revolutionaries, the Decembrists of 1825 and the Whites of 1918-1922, were unable to discard the imperial paradigm.

The historical Whites, for instance, remained mostly staunchly imperial nationalists. They insisted, during their Civil War against the Bolsheviks, that Russia should be “united and undivided.” They meant that the national minorities in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia should not gain independence, but continue to belong to the Russian empire. A popular axiom in Ukraine since then says, “Russian democracy ends where Ukraine’s independence begins.” Will Russia’s new revolutionaries resist the imperial temptation, focus on their own country, and let the other post-Soviet nations go? Will democratic leadership manage to prevent ultra-nationalists from hijacking the current protest movement and leading the upheaval ad absurdum?

During the December 2011 protests, there was a worrying alliance between Russian democrats and ultra-nationalists. In spite of their dubious reputation, the latter were permitted by the meeting organizers not only to take part in the demonstrations, but also to make speeches to the protesters. One wonders, however, how far the democratism of these right-wing extremists would go and how they would behave in case they were to achieve power. During the protests, even radical nationalists such as Vladlen Kralin (Vladimir Tor) and Ilya Lazarenko were speaking out in favor of political liberalization as well as free and fair elections. However, their deeper beliefs and political past suggest that what the ultra-nationalists would prefer instead of Putin’s authoritarianism is not a liberal democracy. Rather, one suspects that what they have in mind is an illiberal ethnocracy if not eventually an autocratic regime to be headed by somebody who is even more nationalistic and anti-Western than Putin.

For instance, the political activist and prolific blogger Kralin alias Tor, is one of the leaders of the infamous Movement Against Illegal Immigration and has been an initiator of the expressly xenophobic November 4th "Russian Marches" of last year. Another speaker at the December 2011 protests, Lazarenko is a former head of the fascist micro-party National Front as well as of the pagan sect Church of Nav labeled by some observers as “satanistic.” In 1997, in one of the rare anti-racist court trials of that time, Lazarenko was found guilty of hate speech and sentenced to a 1.5-year suspended prison term. Two years before, in 1995, he had published an article under the title “To Hell with Elections – this Mondialist [US-American] Circus!”

Many of the Russian ultra-nationalists are either open or crypto-racists. They disdain the inclusiveness and permissiveness of modern democratic societies and see Russia as being too liberal rather than reactionary. The anti-Putinism of some of the nationalists may be as radical as, or even more profound than, that of the democrats. Yet, it may have other sources and be of a different kind than the oppositional stance of the various liberal, conservative, Christian, social, and national democrats that the protests brought together. With their behavior during the December 2011 demonstrations, the ultra-nationalists have already discredited the Russian mass action of civic disobedience to a considerable degree.

Russia’s old elites before and after the October Revolution, the CPSU apparatchiks of the Soviet stagnation period of the 1970s-1980s, and Putin’s team during recent years have failed in their own ways. However, these declines of Russia’s authoritarian regimes were also fundamentally similar. The descents all happened against the background of the excessive attention of Russian rulers to the outside world, rather than to problems at home. The Russian White revolutionaries of the early 21st century would be well advised to not step into the same trap as the Whites of the early 20th century. They should concentrate on Russia’s own problems. Russia will become a law-ruled democracy when it stops seeing itself as the center of a separate civilization engaged in a geopolitical struggle beyond its borders. Once the Russians discard the mirages of “The Third Rome” and imperial greatness, they will finally become free.

Olena Tregub is currently completing a mid-career program in international affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers community and participated in the 2012 WEF Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.Tregub heads the US-based consulting firm Global Education Leadership, and works as a policy analyst and journalist in Kyiv and Washington, DC. 

Dr. Andreas Umland is DAAD Associate Professor of Political Sciene at the National University of "Kyiv-Mohyla Academy," a member of the Valdai Discussion Club, the administrator of the Russian Nationalism web archive, and general editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society." He publishes on post-Soviet Russian and Ukrainian politics.