MOSCOW BLOG: Russia's civilised revolution

By bne IntelliNews December 13, 2011

bne -

Yevgenia Chirikova caught the mood of this weekend's protestors at a press conference on December 11. She sprang to prominence for organising the protests against the destruction of a forest in the Moscow region suburb of Khimki last summer and successfully prevented the building of a highway, and is an unlikely radical.

"All the meetings of the protests, all the actions of the protests in Russia, are the most civilised protests amongst all those protests that are happening worldwide. There is no broken glass. No overturned or burned cars. This is a civilised citizens' protest against a party of crooks and thieves, against them depriving us of free and fair elections," said Chirikova.

Contrast the 33-year-old former businesswoman, who has a taste for frumpy tank tops, with the freedom fighters in Libya or Syria (or even the hippies in New York's Zuccotti park). She is emblematic of Russia's emerging protest movement - typically middle class in the western sense and, ironically, one of the real beneficiaries of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's successful reforms that have lead to a 14-fold increase in income over the last 12 years.

Yet she is angry. The middle class were grateful enough (or at least complacent) in 2008 when they helped United Russia sweep back into power (the ruling party officially won just over 66% of the seats, but even counting out the widely reported election fraud still commanded about 60% of the real vote) and meekly accepted Dmitry Medvedev as their new president. But the global crisis that broke the same year has made bad government more obvious and the pain inflicted has goaded more into action.

Even so, Russians remain relatively well off: unemployment is now at 6.1%, a post-Soviet low, inflation will end the year at about 7%, and after a brief reversal incomes continue to rise and have already surpassed their pre-crisis levels. In other words, from a material point of view and relative to their western peers, Russians have little to complain about compared to where they were when Putin became president in 2000.

Russia's relative prosperity has muted the protest movement. The "Arab Spring" was sparked by the self-immolation of a market trader in Tunisia, but it was rising food prices and high youth unemployment that provided the tinder.

And it is this very mildness that could make Russia's protest movement so powerful. Of all countries in the world, none are as familiar with sophisticated repression as Russia and Putin, a former KGB colonel, is explicitly schooled in the art. However, he has caught himself on the horns of a dilemma created by his own "managed democracy," and may become victim to the Kremlin's own emphasis on developing the internet and allowing public discussion of corruption as part of Medvedev's own anti-graft campaign, among other things.

There is a lot of "manage" in this model, such as the state's complete control over the mainstream media and use of administrative resources to manipulate the vote. But there is also real "democracy" in there; Putin needs real votes to legitimise his programme and his own personal popularity (still amongst the highest in the world, albeit falling) is the bedrock on which his power rests on.

The vote in December 4's Duma poll may have been manipulated, but United Russia still only won 49% of the vote (estimates of the real result range from 25% to 35%), not the 90% typical of virtually all of Russia's neighbours to the east and southeast -home to real old-school dictatorships. The Kremlin is subtle enough to realise that it can't get away with that kind of ballot stuffing.

So Putin is attempting a balancing act: giving a real voice to the voters, but using his hold on the levers of power to massage the result and maintain the control he clearly believes he needs to finish his 20-year transformation programme.

What is less noted is the people appear willing to compromise. Unlike Egyptians and Belarusians, the majority don't necessarily want to topple the government; they just want to make it more accountable and representative. The most widely heard complaint is not a call for "change" but for "order", by which people mean an end of the unpredictability and cost that accompanies the endemic corruption (the way officials extract a bribe is to create an unforeseen problem). The Russian people want a quiet life where they can work and enjoy the fruits of the country's ongoing development. It is a quintessentially middle-class aspiration much closer to the occupy Wall Street Movement than the protestors on Cairo's Tahrir Square.

If Russians continue to pursue Chirikova's "civilised" revolution, then ultimately the Kremlin will be powerless to stop it precisely because "managed democracy" requires a measure of civilised voting. The main danger is that the Kremlin reaches for the crackdown lever and then faces the prospect of radicalising the population and losing control. Putin's own stated goal is to raise two-thirds of the population into the middle class by 2020, but the middle class is by definition a political class, concerned with things like property and government services. What has caught Putin out is Russia's growing prosperity has increased so fast that the country is already at the point where the emerging middle class is demanding its say, some 10 years before Putin had expected.

The white ribbons that the protestors were sporting is an appropriate colour, as this revolution won't have the colour of the street battles in Minsk or Wall Street; it will be fought online and in speeches couched in the terms of moderation and insistence. But the ball is in the Kremlin's court now.

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