Since Vladimir Putin became president in the beginning of 2000, the Russian Federation has been only a shadow of a democracy. It certainly resembles one on the outside, with parliamentary and presidential elections and a constitution set to protect civil liberties. Yet Russia today is truly more of an authoritarian-democratic hybrid. The regime is far less liberal than the Western nations it claims to want to keep up with.
While it is no longer economically backward, the abuse of political power that defines its domestic politics is certainly below the expectations of modern governance. Russian politicians have often been compared to gangsters, crooks, and thieves due to their habitual overreaching of their authority. No government of the people, by the people, and for the people exists in the largest geographic country in the world. For almost a decade, the people of Russia have permitted the violation of their rights. Now, however, the people of Russia are refusing to sit back and allow the political manipulation to continue. They want the democracy they were promised and they are finally beginning to fight for it.
The Putin-era government had long enjoyed popular support, but the people of 2012 are exhibiting their distaste for its characteristic rule bending and corruption. This desire for change has culminated in protests in the streets and online, such as those seen in response to the December 2011 parliamentary election. Many of the protestors hope to see a more liberal Russia - one that champions individual rights over those of the collective - and are speaking up.
Russia is a relatively wealthy and developed nation, but its middle class, relative to its Western peers, is underdeveloped in civil society and political involvement. Many political scientists have pointed out the importance of a strong middle class in bringing about revolutionary change. In Russia, it seems that perhaps it is the focus of the middle class that has kept change from happening. In the past, these citizens, on whom change is so dependent, have been more preoccupied with developing affluence than democracy. Yet recent protests and uprisings provide hope that this can change, and these recent displays of discontent may well be the beginning of a reversal of values. When political change becomes a middle class priority, the middle class begins to fight for its realization. In Russia today, the middle class and the Russian people as a whole are beginning to fight.
Social media (including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs) has proven to be a strong catalyst for the Russian people’s movement, just as it was in Egypt and other recent revolutions. In a December 2011 rally in Moscow, people used Facebook to organize; three days before the protest, 20,000 Russians had electronically sealed their attendance. While the Kremlin has long enjoyed control of most newspapers and television, they have been unable to control what is being said and done today on the Internet. In fact, they have not really tried. This is a stark contrast to the way Russia has handled other media dissension in the past, with the frequent intimidation of journalists and occasional assassinations. Another government that enjoys a strong grip over its people, the People’s Republic of China, approached this problem by putting in a firewall that restricts access to such networks. China is not trying to maintain the same democratic illusion that the Russian government is, however, and perhaps that is why Russia has taken so little action here. Or perhaps it is the government’s confidence that the threat it is facing there is empty, as Russian officials believe they will still be able to maintain control and that public support is largely unnecessary. Again, the recent Egyptian revolution serves as a testament to the momentum such movements can gain. If left unchecked, the uprisings will continue to snowball into a stronger and stronger force.
How will the government react to these recent uprisings? It is unlikely that the government will take a laissez-faire approach and let the people voice their frustration in the hopes that everything will eventually work itself out. On the other extreme, it is unlikely that the government will retaliate with open violence, as Russia still wants to maintain its facade of modernity. For the moment, it seems that they will avoid repression, and further assess the situation before taking action. Eventually decisions will have to be made if the current governing group wants to stave off making the changes the people are demanding. Even though Putin was reelected, the long-lasting peace and uncontested rule of the Putin-era government appears to have reached an end, and what has been permissible for the last decade or so is no longer acceptable to the Russian people. If the people truly want the change they have been asking for as of late and do not give up fighting, there is great potential for the movement to transform into something even the formidable Putin cannot stop. It will certainly be challenging, and changes will not happen overnight, but the prospects for real democracy in Russia are brighter than they have been in a long time.
Staff Writer Sarah Moon