The mass protests in Russia this week mark a new era for the Russian state — an end to a cowed population that will accept whatever the government offers.
This is not a “Moscow Spring” — the government is not going to fall, nor is that what the protestors are seeking. Rather, the call is for honesty and accountability in government.
The response of the regime has been just as important as the demonstrations themselves. Moscow is not Chechnya; the regime is not going to enforce compliance at gunpoint against thousands of its citizens. The widespread use of the internet to broadcast images of the protests also left the state-controlled media with a tough choice — ignore or misrepresent the protests and be ridiculed for ignoring a mass event that everyone has already seen online, or cover them as they occurred. The media chose to do the latter.
Individual businessmen and political dissidents could be arrested, and individual journalists who persisted in uncovering dirt on the regime could be beaten or even killed. But tens of thousands of Russians assembling peacefully in a dozen cities represent a different challenge. They have managed to puncture the image of Putin and his regime as inevitable and invincible.
Nothing much is likely to change now — the courts seem unwilling to entertain a change in the announced election results, much less throw out and redo the parliamentary elections. Yet over the next few months the political game in Russia will change. A new election commission that has more public trust will almost certainly be demanded for the Presidential elections. And credible opposition candidates may be allowed to campaign.
Whether Putin is in danger of losing will depend on what happens in the Russian economy in the next few months. A European crisis that drags down Russia, or the continued outflow of capital to a degree that cramps investment and demoralizes Russia, could lead to a strong challenge.
It seems unlikely that any challenger has sufficient national recognition and standing to defeat Putin at the polls, even in a reasonably fair election. But we cannot rule out surprises (although Putin will do all he can to do so). The world did not expect Salafists to do so well in Egypt; nor for Herman Cain and then Newt Gingrich to lead the US Republican polls. When people are given freedom to vote, surprises can emerge. Who knows if an ‘anyone but Putin’ movement will gain traction in the coming months?
A new chapter has begun in the politics of the Russian Federation. We can only watch as it unfolds with excitement and hope. Where it will lead is not yet clear.