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Protests in Russia, Winter 2011-12

Summary of the 4 December 2011 State Duma election results

Parties and alliances Seat composition Popular vote % ± pp
Seats ± %
United Russia 238 decrease77 52.88% 32,379,135 49.32% decrease14.98%
Communist Party 92 increase35 20.46% 12,599,507 19.19% increase7.62%
A Just Russia 64 increase26 14.21% 8,695,522 13.24% increase5.50%
Liberal Democratic Party 56 increase16 12.45% 7,664,570 11.67% increase3.53%
Yabloko 0 steady0 0% 2,252,403 3.43% increase1.84%
Patriots of Russia 0 steady0 0% 639,119 0.97% increase0.08%
Right Cause 0 steady0 0% 392,806 0.60% new party
Total 450 0 100% 64,623,062 100%
Valid ballot papers 64,623,062 98.43%
Invalid ballot papers 1,033,464 1.57%
Eligible voters 109,237,780 Turnout: 60.10%
Source: Summary table of election results – Central Election Commission


Summary of the 4 March 2012 Russian presidential election results
Candidates Nominating parties Votes %
Vladimir Putin United Russia 45,513,001 63.64
Gennady Zyuganov Communist Party 12,288,624 17.18
Mikhail Prokhorov Independent 5,680,558 7.94
Vladimir Zhirinovsky Liberal Democratic Party 4,448,959 6.22
Sergey Mironov A Just Russia 2,755,642 3.85
Valid votes 70,686,784 98.84
Invalid votes 833,191 1.16
Total votes 71,519,975 100.00
Registered voters/turnout 109,610,812 65.25
Source: Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation


  1. Medvedev Responds with Proposals for Systemic Change (NYT Dec 22)
  2. How far can the resistance to Vladimir Putin go? (New Yorker Dec 12)
  3. Is this a Russian Spring? (BBC Dec 7)

Your assignment–Write, and post a 750-1000 word essay which:

1. Cites all three of the above articles (other resources are available below)
2. Synthesizes the given articles with previous lectures, readings, and discussions
3. Is thesis-driven and evidence-based
4. Attempts to pose an original argument
5. Answers these questions:

  • Summarize the 2011 Duma election results. What do these results suggest?
  • What are the causes of post-election political discontent in Russia? To what extent are these grievances valid?
  • According to Remnick’s piece in the New Yorker, how is the suppression of civil society at the heart of the problem in Russia? Do you tend to agree with his assertions? (If you want more scholarly info on civil society in Russia, see the pieces posted below.)
  • Specifically how have Putin, Medvedev, and United Russia responded?
  • Conclude by hazarding a response to these questions: Is this the end of an era in Russia? The beginning of the end? Neither?


EXTRA CREDIT: Up to 7 points for offering a substantial (200+ word) and evidence-based refutation of a classmates’ essay. (this is probably the only extra credit for the semester)

A Balanced Assessment of Russian Civil Society” from Colombia University. More optimisitc than Remnick

Russian Democracy in the Absence of Civil Society. Not so optimistic.

Photo Essay: The Anti-Putin Brigade (Foreign Policy)

Thousands Call on Putin to Go (BBC Dec 25)

Day By Day Summary (Slate Dec 4-12)

2 Minute BBC video

Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Politial Information think tank, agreed that Putin is increasingly the target but stressed that the opposition continues to lack a comparable leader figure. “Russia without Putin” is the strongest slogan, but it is at the same time the weakest one,“ Mukhin said in an interview. “Because the answer is: ok, Putin, leaves, and then what? Nothing is being offered instead. There is no strong figure that would be able to compete with Putin. It is the weak point, where the pro-government forces are going to strike.”

How does the Kremlin see all this? Check out the state-owned RIA Novosti covers the 2011 protests. Want a hint? December 29th headline: “Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has blamed the United States for being behind the recent wave of protests in Russia against the outcome of the December 4 parliamentary elections”

Below: Discussion with Anastasia Mirzoyants, the Eurasia Project Manager at Intermedia & ; Jeffrey Mankoff, Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University and a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

30 minute video: The Stream speaks to Anastasia Mirzoyants, the Eurasia Project Manager at Intermedia, a leading consulting firm; Jeffrey Mankoff, Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University

Anatoly Karlin, student at UC Berkeley, gives some context to the numbers in this op-ed for Al Jazeera. Karlin also runs the blog Supreme Oblivion


5 Responses to “Protests in Russia, Winter 2011-12”

  1. Chu Duong Says:

    After a decade under Putin’s authoritarian rule, Russia starts to show resistance and resentment towards Putin himself as well as the government and United Russia as a whole. A series of demonstrations commencing in summer 2011, the slow but steady development of civil society, and the loss of support from Russian people weaken Russia’s government legitimacy. However, due to the nature of Russian political culture, Putin’s charismatic character and legacy, underdeveloped civil society, and the lack of strong opposing force, Russia is not entirely prepared for the transition phase to democracy and a “Russia spring”.

    2011 Duma election turnout alarms the leaders of United Russia and foreshadows significant changes in Russia politics. Although Putin’s party still wins 49.38% of votes, it is the only party that loses votes in this election. Meanwhile, the Communist Party (20%) and other smaller parties gain more votes and do relatively well. The result demonstrates the shifting of support from United Russia to other political parties and the increasing involvement of people, especially the youth, in politics. Despite the fact that these young people benefited from the revival of Russian economy, “economic crisis, political stagnation and corruption has turned them against the regime” (“Viewpoint: Are post-poll protests a Russian Spring”). The turnout angers them and young voters demand the recounting of votes. They show more indignation when Putin announces his intention of running for presidency in 2012 presidential election. The announcement implies that Medvedev is truly a puppet in Putin’s hands. He acts nothing more than a temporary replacement while Putin, unsurprisingly, has been holding absolute power. Educated Russians get tired of the predictable election results as well as Putin and United Russia’s long domination. The “unexpected” reaction from the mass leads to various responses from the government.

    During his two consecutive terms as President and one term as Prime Minister, Putin exceedingly increases Moscow’s power and United Russia’s domination in Russia politics. He changes the method of electing regions governors to ensure loyalty, raises threshold in election from 5% to 7% to cast out several minor parties, and controls all major TV stations to use the media in United Russia’s interests. Although Putin still receives remarkably high support, post-poll protests debilitate his legitimacy and place him in an awkward position. He finds no perfect solution: crackdown on them makes him look like a scared tyranny; ignoring them encourages growing dissatisfaction in the mass and raises questions about his ability in the ruling class. In this critical situation, Putin cannot afford the loss of trust within his circles. Nor can he prosecute protestors without kindling another wave of hatred and frustration.

    Meanwhile, his “student”, Medvedev, quickly proposes political changes to ease the intense situation. He proposes the return of direct election of governors and the establishment of an independent public TV station. He states, “All active citizens should have legal opportunities to participate in political life”. Medvedev helplessly proves his ability to handle the situation and his position as a “democrat”. However, he has been under Putin’s shadow for so long that he, as Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center says, “Might have missed his chance as president”. (“At Presidency’s 11th Hour, Medvedev Proposes Systemic Change”) During his term, no significant reform is made. Contrary to many liberals’ hopes, Medvedev does not further enlarge economic reform, initiate political and social change, and become a “revolutionary” president who challenges Putin’s rule.

    Although the president is merely a puppet, Medvedev’s proposals worry United Russia and threaten to destroy Putin’s efforts. If his proposals become legislations, the dissolve of highly centralized government is unavoidable. In addition, United Russia might lose its domination and end up in a coalition government. The party shows its concern towards parties formed by oligarchs to capture power. Therefore, it suggests that only 3-year-old parties are eligible for elections.

    In “How far can the resistance to Vladimir Putin go”, Remnick portrays the challenges and health of civil society in Russia. Although organizations like Memorial exist and slowly gain reputation, they are dispersed and have no significant impacts on the passing of legislations or government’s policies. The author notes one of Memorial’s officers, “Past few years have seen a proliferation of independent human-rights groups, media outlets, think tanks, academic departments, election watchdogs, and N.G.O.s not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but all over the country. Because their efficacy is so limited, so circumscribed by the Kremlin, they do not constitute a true civil society; rather, they are an archipelago of islands in a vast sea, barely connected to each other and ignored, at best, by the political élite.” Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist who reveals inhumane acts of Russian government in Chechnya, Estemirova, an activist, and Orlov, the leader of human rights department of Memorial are not exceptional cases in Russia. Brave writers and activists along with “dangerous” leaders of “dangerous” organizations become targets of threat, abduction, kidnapping, and assassination. Moreover, the government projects the image of “enemy to the people” upon them. Facing incessant difficulties, these organizations cannot develop properly. However, recently, these small organizations have acted as catalysts that unite Russians “of different kinds to stand up for their rights. That influences other movements and other people” as Chirikova, the leader of Khimki Forest movement confidently and optimistically states. The government begins to recognize the potential “danger” from these potential civil societies. “The authorities are fully conscious of the fact that they are thieves, and they are not so sure of themselves,” she said. “Which is why they are scared of any protest. In August last year, we gathered thousands of people near the Kremlin. The authorities are afraid people will turn their heads to the Kremlin. They are ready to do anything they can to prevent people coming out in the streets.” Putin’s government slowly understands that there is a force that can challenge it in near future. Moreover, activists not only gather physical mass but also gain support by using the Internet to transmit their messages to a wider audience. “Kermlin Russia” is an example of young people effectively using social network as a mean to fight against the ruthless government. Similar to the Arab Spring, the ongoing movement is increasingly powerful as more and more Russians have access to Internet. Sooner or later, leaders on the Internet will be able to gather a real group of supporters. At the end, Remnich concludes that in spite of difficulties, civil society in Russia does have great chance to blossom and become a major force in Russian politics.

    Although demonstrations in Russia might eventually lead to limited changes in politics, they are not strong enough to remove Putin and United Russia completely out of the picture and put the end to Putin’s era. First of all, Putin’s legacy as “the savior of Russia” still remains. His achievements in reviving Russia’s economy, regardless their sources, are undeniable. He stabilizes Russia in the midst of desperation and after Yeltsin’s failures. In addition, Russia’s diversity and geographical widespread demand a strong character to unite the country. At this moment, no politicians are capable to taking over Putin’s role as Russia’s charismatic, harsh but widely supported man. His iron grip ensures Chechnya and other rebellious regions’ loyalty and attachment to Russia. Secondly, no party in Russia politics can take over United Russia’s domination except the Communist Party. However, most Russians tend not to choose this opposing force in fear of the return of Soviet Union’s era. Smaller parties have not yet emerged from the background as potential candidates. Thirdly, Russia does not possess a history of democracy. Therefore, it is very difficult to convert subjects in Moscow and parochial in Siberia into active participants. Unlike Middle Eastern nations, Russia is the biggest nation whose population spreads out over 11 time zones. To unite the whole nation and ensure that United Russia does not win the majority is an impossible task in near future. Furthermore, it is very likely that Putin (or Medvedev) will win the presidential election in March in spite of waves of opposition. Worst case scenario for the protestors becomes true. Putin then freely establishes whatever legislations to guarantee his safety such as restriction and control over the Internet. Putin’s return will put much more pressure upon the already fragile civil society (Civil society is not constitutionally protected). Additionally, because Moscow holds too much power, the sudden devolution of power will cause confusion. Struggle for power in leadership will exacerbate the instability. Finally, as long as United Russia dominates Russia’s politics and Putin reigns, not a lot of Russians are willing to sacrifice their safety to participate in a fight that does not necessarily bring them benefits any soon as Remnick writes, “middle class is still more interested in prosperity than in law or democracy”. The Russians get used to the system in which they are instructed and given benefits at the expense of freedom and their loyalty. The risk of being prosecuted is too great to bear for the majority of Russians.

  2. Lara Fenwick Says:

    Russia has long been known as a country with a horrible history of violence, turmoil, and bad leadership. Russians are accustomed to being told who their leader will be, and what they must do to comply with him. Although a form of democracy is instituted in Russia, it’s a very moderate form which does not leave much actual choice to the people. After the 2011 Duma elections however, something has sparked in Russia. The people are gaining a voice and are pulling together to improve the seriously stunted civil society in Russia and go against the centralized leadership of Vladimir Putin.
    In December 2011 the Duma elections took place in Russia and some very interesting results came out. Not surprisingly, United Russia gained the most seats and the bigger popular vote. However, after that is where the interesting facts come in. United Russia lost 77 seats and almost 15% of the vote. Right up behnd them came the Communists who gained 35 more seats and around 7.6% more than last election. The Communist Party, Just Russia, and the Liberal Democats all gained more seats than previously, and also more % of the popular vote. Smaller parties such as Yabloko, and Patriots of Russia didn’t gain any seats, but did increase in support.
    Clearly, Russians are losing confidence and patience with United Russia and Putin and are interested in other parties and leaders, and what they could do for Russia. After the surprising results, huge accusations of vote fraud came out. Many Russians are protesting against United Russia. Out of the 60.10% voter turnout, 1.57% of that was invalid voter ballots. Many people suspect this number is higher. They also know that even if the count were correct, United Russia might have lost the over 50% majority, and smaller less influential parties could gain power.
    Russia has had an obvious lack of civil society and unity among it’s people. One major reason, is the difficulty to institute civil society under the Russia government.
    Remnick writes “In this country, we have a lot of state and very little society. Our task is to make it so that there is more society and less state.” Remnick heads an organization dedicated to improving human rights and civil liberties. Many Russians are getting tired of not having a voice, and want to improve conditions for Russians. There are too many stories of civil rights activists or journalists being kidnapped or murdered, and Russians are starting to get tired of it. What with the furthering of internet technology, Russians can communicate with more ease, and have the choice of seeing both sides of a story that the government does not tell them. Remnick is very true when he says that civil society is a major force in the dissent by many Russians. The people don’t feel safe and feel the need to unite. As Kozlov says, “This must be how civil society begins; it grows from deep inside you.”
    Mdvedev, Putin, and United Russia have responded in different ways. In the document “Mdvedev responds with proposals for systematic change” The author writes that Mdvedev responds by announcing reforms that are to be instituted in Russia that would call for reforms such as direct elections of governors again, and a public news station that would be free from biased government control. United Russia became very nervous with these reforms, and feared that they would give more power to younger parties who would come in and take some of the power that was gained through Putin. The reforms would cast away some of Putin’s policies that were mainly instituted in order for Putin to gain power. According to Konstantin von Eggert, Putin can either crack down on all the dissent by his people, or he has to address the problems the people find with him, and find a solution to them. Putin did announce limited watered-down reforms, that didn’t make much of a difference. Medvdev than clarified and strengthened them later on.
    Clearly, the beginning of the end for centralism in Russian government is coming. Thousands are protesting against the government, which is something rarely seen in such a centralist government. Russians are finally gaining a voice and standing up for their rights and civil liberties. As Alexei Mukhin said, the main thing the opposition needs is a strong leader that share theirs anger and beliefs. They need someone brave enough to go against Putin and United Russia. The strong opposers of Putin seem to always mysteriously disappear or are jailed. As the opposition grows however, United Russia will be forced to listen to the people. The age of centralism and manged democracy is slowly but surely coming to an end in Russia, and a new age of informed, fair voting is within the future.

  3. Nicki Dorrmann Says:

    AP Comparative Government: Russia – 2011 Duma Elections
    “Managed democracy” means democracy without surprises during elections. It means
    democracy “with benefits” for state power. It can also come to signify no democracy at all.
    The election of the Russian State Duma in 2011 demonstrated the power the state wields
    over these elections. The 2011 Duma election in Russia saw a huge pushback against the
    governing United Russia Party, caused in significant part by the general frustration felt by
    Russia’s rising middle class with the power-hungry political leadership and exposition of
    serious electoral fraud on the Internet.
    Though United Russia maintained a majority in the State Duma, their record loss
    indicates a high degree of political dissatisfaction, as the actual election results are most
    probably lower than the official results. United Russia lost 15 percentage points compared to
    the last election, leaving them with just under half of the popular vote and just over half of the
    seats in the Duma (238). All other parties gained significantly, while voter turnout was three
    percentage points lower than in the last election in 2007, indicating a serious voter swing
    over the past years. The percentage limit again only allowed four parties into the Duma,
    though the three opposition parties gained a significant amount of seats. The Communists
    gained most, followed by the social-democratic Just Russia and the Liberal Democrats on
    fourth, winning 92, 64, and 56 seats, respectively. The election was accompanied by
    numerous reports of large-scale election fraud, ballot box stuffing, etc. These reports are not
    unusual for Russia (Economist), but the narrow margin by which United Russia kept its
    majority calls these practices into question even more. Many commentators saw the election
    as a referendum on the politics of the Putin-Medvedev tandem (BBC), and results show
    clearly that the referendum turned out negative.
    The protests following the election express the frustrations of the rising middle class
    with the corrupt nature of the regime and the continual accumulation of power in the
    executive branch. This was the first election with significant impact of the internet and social
    media. These new media permitted reports of voting fraud to spread quickly, something
    which very probably contributed to the immediate rise of these protests. However, the root
    cause of the protests lies slightly deeper. The movement as a whole is genuinely recent, its
    beginnings probably date back to September and Putin’s announcement to seek a third term
    as president in 2012. The power tandem of Putin and Medvedev tried to perpetuate itself too
    far, eliminating its last shred of legitimacy. Putin’s past bases of power, the oil-and-gas
    economy and his personal popularity, have eroded. Oil and gas prices are projected to
    stagnate due to the financial crisis, and Putin’s association with United Russia, now
    colloquially termed the “party of crooks and thieves,” has proven destructive to his popularity.
    In principle, the protesters target Putin and Medvedev as the faces of a self-perpetuating,
    corrupt, authoritarian kleptocracy.
    The absence, or rather, the repression of civil society in Russia presents a significant
    challenge to eliminating this kleptocracy. Using the threat of terrorism and violence breaking
    out in Russia, Putin has successfully established a regime that can effectively repress the
    emergence of any sort of civil society. Establishing a civil interest group in Russia is rendered
    difficult by the corrupt bureaucracy and the harassment experienced particularly by NGOs
    funded by the West (New Yorker). Interests are usually pursued as an individual, and since
    power and money are equivalent in the government bureaucracy, the wealthiest individuals
    have the best possibilities of articulating their interest (Economist). A rising middle class
    means a larger number of people unprepared to articulate their interest by dishing out bribes
    en masse. However, the middle class, unlike the working class and the poor, do have means
    to organize outside of civil society now, primarily via the Internet (BBC). This is what is
    currently happening in Russia. Elimination of corruption and establishment of democracy are
    only possible if the regime breaks the connection between money and political power. In
    order to establish a civil society, the middle class must express their interest of stopping the
    repression of civil groups by anomic protest, there is no other way.
    In light of the recent protests, Medvedev has unveiled a remedial political reform plan,
    which seeks to empower the outraged class of middle-class urbanites (NYT). The core of the
    plan is to allow the people to elect their own governors once more, rescinding a decree made
    by Putin in 2004. Though a clear sign that Medvedev and Putin have noticed their crisis of
    legitimacy, this move in no way addresses the true problems of Russia enumerated in the
    preceding paragraphs. Medvedev said there would be no “interference in our affairs by
    outside forces” (NYT). The context of the quote does not suggest that Medvedev was
    referring to foreign powers, but rather to the domestic political arena. Whether he meant
    extremist political parties or civil society as a whole is unclear, but his program does not
    address the issue anyway. Simply put, allowing people to elect another body of government
    every four years will not suffice to pull Russia out of its quagmire of corruption. Allowing
    serious opposition movements to surface in the course of reform is the correct move, but it
    will require a restructuring of the executive branch in the near future, which is unlikely to
    happen: Medvedev had already mentioned that political parties would have to be in existence
    for three years until being able to stand for election (NYT). Unless Medvedev’s reform
    program addresses the grievances of the Bolotnaya Square protests seriously and with view
    to long-term improvement of the political system, the situation will remain unimproved for
    United Russia.
    In Russia, an era is ending, but there is little certainty as to what comes next. The
    moves of Russian political leaders today will determine tomorrow’s political system.
    Medvedev must follow through on his promises of reform, perhaps even go a few steps
    further, if Russia is to transition away from its current authoritarian kleptocracy. If the
    executive chooses to repress these protests and demonstrations, then the state may just slip
    back into its old Soviet patterns (Economist). Russia has survived the past decade on oil and
    gas prices as the bedrock of Putin’s stability. This bedrock is showing large cracks. Russia’s
    stability may be established by two ways. The easy route for the political leadership is the
    route to authoritarianism. The harder route is the route of reform and restructuring, which
    may bear more historical parallels to the Soviet Union than the political leaders may like.

    // I quoted a few other articles from the Economist that I had lying around, here are the links.

    The Long Life of Homo Sovieticus

    Voting, Russian-style

    The Cracks Appear

    The Birth of Russian Citizenry

  4. Hyerin Park Says:

    “Russia without Putin! Down with the police state! Shame!” During the days that followed the announcement of results of the parliamentary elections in December 2011, the streets of Russia that had been relatively free of large riots and demonstrations since the downfall of the Soviet Union were densely filled with the shouts of angry Russians shouting such slogans demanding justice. Pronouncing the elections rigged and fraudulent, students, construction workers, and journalists alike took to the streets to publicly denounce United Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for their involvement in manipulating the votes to their advantage. Observers in the West have viewed these protests with hope and drew parallels between them and the Arab Spring. But despite the people’s promising calls for a re-election and change, the soon-to-be President for a second time, Putin, withholds sufficient influence and power to become elected once more and allow for no significant change in the political system.

    There is no way around it- United Russia suffered a loss in the 2011 elections by winning a far less percentage of votes than was expected. Winning 49.32% of the votes, down from 63.40% in 2007, the party won 14.98% of votes less than in the 2007 elections while the other three parties that were able to gain seats in the Duma all gained a higher level of representation in the parliament (The Communist Party of the Russian Federation performed well with 19.19%, A Just Russia managed 13.24%, and Liberal Democratic Party received 11.67% of the votes.) The disappointing results suggest that the party as well as Putin’s popularity has waned significantly since the 2007 elections. Nevertheless, United Russia still gained over 50% of the seats in the Duma and an absolute majority of the elections, while parties such as the Yabloko, A Patriots of Russia, and Right Cause were not able to acquire any seats because they did not surpass the 7% threshold. Of course, the decline in United Russia’s popularity will lead to an increase in support for other parties; as evidenced by the increase in votes for The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, A Just Russia, and Liberal Democratic Party from 2007, the votes that United Russia lost were distributed among the three parties that managed to cross the 7% threshold. However, United Russia still wields sufficient support (even though the extent to which the “support” is genuine is questionable) to remain influential.

    There is also no doubt that United Russia and Putin have lost legitimacy among the Russians. Protesters participating in the largest rallies since the fall of the Soviet Union across the country are demanding a re-election, and even calling for Putin to be jailed over the rigged poll; observers speculate that United Russia’s vote was inflated from 25% to 50% of the total share. Their grievances are valid; Youtube videos and testimonies by anonymous political strategists working for United Russia point to the party’s involvement in rigging the results of the elections. These grievances, however, will not affect United Russia and Putin’s rule, so long as the civil society in Russia remains weak and incapable of expressing protest against the government. In his article “How far can the resistance to Vladimir Putin go?”, David Remnick cites Arseny Roginsky, one of the founders of Memorial. Roginsky asserts, “In this country, we have a lot of state and very little society. Our task is to make it so that there is more society and less state.” Indeed, Russia’s history has been mostly dominated by absolute, centralized rule, depriving the Russian citizens the sense of prevalence and ability to make a change in addition to encouraging their political apathy. Despite the fact that the past few years has seen the proliferation of NGOs, independent human rights groups, and election watchdogs, it is the widespread notion that the efficacy of civil society in Russia is severely limited by the Kremlin, and are thus, as Remnick claims, “an archipelago of islands in a vast sea, barely connected to each other and ignored, at best, by the political élite.” Due to the futile civil society organizations and their unfruitful projects, the Russian people are kept from articulating their interests and organizing effectively with others that share the same opinions on certain matters. The inability of independent organizations to affect the policymaking process will keep United Russia and Putin’s power unchecked.

    Moreover, most prominent politicians do not speak out against the rigged parliamentary elections, nor do they condemn Putin for his meddling with the results, for fear that their political careers and lives may be ruined if they do so or because of their valuable connections with him. An example of such politicians is President Medvedev, who has responded to the allegations of election fraud by announcing he had no doubts or complaints about the elections. The president’s reaction has been characterized as “feeble” by many observers- Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, even predicted Medvedev’s swift political downfall, crediting the president’s weak reaction to the accusations. Recently, Medvedev also proposed systematic reforms in his last national speech before leaving office, namely “returning to the direct election of governors, removing officials’ wives and children from the leadership of lucrative corporations, and creating a public television station protected from the Kremlin’s manipulation,” among other changes (“Medvedev Responds with Proposals for Systematic Change”). Although the Kremlin has been insistent in clarifying that Medvedev has not recommended the reforms in response to the protests of the December parliamentary elections, but rather was “inspired by popular discontent with the political system”, it seems as though “Putin’s poodle” proposed the late reforms because he would like to be remembered as a reformer.

    Putin himself has also been active in denouncing the protests and saving his image. He has responded to the protests mockingly and dismissively; characterizing the protestors as “agents of the west, attending useless demonstrations with condoms pinned to their chests as they sought the downfall of the motherland,” Putin claimed the protestors were mostly students who had been paid to attend the demonstrations and likened the white ribbons of the protestors to a condom. Additionally, he commented on a live Q&A show, “This is a developed scheme to destabilize a society that did not rise up on its own.” Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev expressed his impatience with Putin’s reaction this time, attacking his response to the protests as “shameful” and “embarrassing”.

    In his article “Is this a Russian Spring?”, Konstantin von Eggert attempts to respond to the comparison made between the Arab Spring and parliamentary elections protests in Russia. In his concluding remarks, he writes, “While this may not be a Russian Spring quite yet, Russia’s ruling class has been engulfed by a crisis of legitimacy and I cannot see it ending any time soon.” Eggert is correct in both of his assertions; while the Russian protests and the Arab Spring may share similarities (i.e. an educated youth, oppositional internet and social media, a corrupt state run by a small elite, and the impossibility of real political change), the protests against the parliamentary elections of 2011 did not serve as a tipping point. It is neither the beginning of an end nor the “End of an Epoch”, as leading opposition blogger and activist Alexei Navalny headlined his post. Sure, the December protests in Russia were the biggest that have been staged in the country since the downfall of the USSR and is a reason for optimism, but Putin still enjoys approval ratings as a leader of about 60%, ratings that most Western leaders would do anything to attain. Although his approval ratings have been sinking significantly as of late, more than enough Russians are of the opinion that Putin would be adequate for presidency if he were to be elected into office in the 2012 presidential elections. To position himself in a better light, Putin could also distance himself from United Russia and effectively separate his personal popularity from the sinking one of the party he created in addition to leaving his side of the bargain with Medvedev unfulfilled- Putin could very realistically take back his promise of appointing Medvedev Prime Minister once he gets elected once more and blame the party’s unpopularity on him.

    Unless large changes in civil society organizations are made or a “Russian Spring” overthrows him and United Russia, Putin may still have four, perhaps even eight more years as President ahead of him. Only time will tell if there is a brighter future without Putin ahead for Russia in the near future.

  5. Dan Lazar Says:

    Text of an email exchange between Lazar (DL) and his Russian History professor friend (ED). The theme of the conversation is the role of civil society in the recent protests.

    Note: the email exchange picks up from a phone discussion.

    Feel free to argue with either/both of us.

    ED: So it would seem that Putin is responding to the Communist challenge by trying to win over some of the Communist supporters rather than by trying to win over the “democrats.” Given that the Communists seem to be completely unreformed (based on your other emails), Putin is probably right to assume that many of those supporting the Communists as the alternative to the Party of Crooks and Thieves do not really see the Communists as a part of Russia’s future. If I’m interpreting this correctly, then Putin’s strategy makes political sense, but it sure sucks for Russia.

    Overall, I guess it stands to reason that a country that has experienced dozens of terrorist attacks and that has millions of undocumented, illegal Muslim immigrants inside its borders (as well as many angry Muslim citizens) would be much more likely to turn in an authoritarian direction. I’d imagine that Putin sees China, rather than Western Europe, as the better model for how to rule the country. America’s hostility does nothing to change that situation.

    I read Remnick’s article. He’s speaking from the heart rather than from the mind. There are a lot of brave, noble, good people in Russia fighting against injustice and oppression, but I don’t think that they represent a large movement as they did between 1985 and 1993. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

    DL: The Western press, and thus my students, is quick to forget that a) Russia borders Central Asia as well as Europe and b) immigration is a real problem in Russia. Sadly, the way I see it, Putin is the alternative to Zhirinovsky.

    I agree with you that the specter of Islamic terrorism presents fertile ground for authoritarianism. I see no way around this. Sometimes I think that it is remarkable how democratic Russia is given her Soviet history and the shock of the 1990’s.

    Per the Post article: I’d hazard to guess that the United Russia will succeed in destroying whatever fragile unity might exist between nationalists and liberals. In fact, doing so seems easy. UR has almost all the cards. I hope I am wrong. To me the only question is what happens between now and the time that this unfit marriage between nationalists and liberals falls apart and/or is destroyed.

    I’m not sure that I know what you mean about Remnick speaking from the heart rather than the head. Are you insinuating that he is being irrational? If so, how? He does focus on the fledgling civil society in Russia. But he is clear that, at best, civil society is some kind of disconnected “archipelago”. He focuses more on the systematic oppression that makes it impossible for activists to do their jobs than he does on their heroism. It is clear that Remnick wants to see the Kremlin open up to criticism from civil society–it that what you mean when you assert that he is speaking from the heart? Just curious.

    So my students are going to read this stuff. I’ll make them write something. The discussion will look like this:
    • No well-oiled political machines = no real competition = no real hope
    • Weak civil society, no hope for reform?
    • How much can this weaken United Russia? Sergei N. Filippov, UR loyalist, openly decried the electoral fraud.
    • The sane middle class has no real alternative to Putin, right?
    o The Communists are the winners here, right?
    • Will UR reform? Medvedev promised to restore direct elections for governors, ease the rules on registering political parties and transform state television into public television.
    • Will United Russia Crack down? New appointments as of 28 Dec 2011
    • How should US and Europe respond?
    • The end of an era? The beginning of the end? Neither?

    Thanks for the phone chat last night. It was energizing.

    ED: What I mean by speaking from the heart is that he is in love (figuratively) with the people he profiled in the article. He’s in love with the noble fighters for justice he has come to know. I know people like that in Russia too. They are incredible people. One can’t help but admire and love them. He writes an article that focuses on them because he loves and admires them (speaking from the heart). I suspect he had most of that article written before any anti-Putin demonstrations took place. Such people are certainly worthy of an article and our respect, but one should not mistake them as being representative of most of the opposition to the status quo in Russia.

    In your discussion outline, I think you may be overdoing the “civil society” thing. Compared to most countries in the world, Russia now has a large and vibrant civil society. There are independent groups of all sorts. The music scene in Russia is huge and varied. There are all sorts of online groups. There are autonomous newspapers and radio stations. There are chess groups and poetry reading groups. The list goes on and on. In this regard Russia compares favorably to most every country in the world except those in Western Europe and North America (and even there the difference is not so great).

    In my Collapse of Communism class this past semester, I asked my class who they thought was the better leader (defined as the one you would most want leading your country), Gorbachev (who struggled and largely succeeded in building a democratic system but allowed the economy and people’s standing of living to collapse) or Deng Xiaoping (who raised most people’s standard of living and built a thriving economy while brutally enforcing a one party dictatorship). Almost unanimously, the students voted for Deng. In other words, when presented with the same choices, the American middle class is inclined to act just like the Russian middle class. It’s not about civil society. It’s about people’s desire for material comforts and order. I think most people in Russia right now are acting out of fear: fear of terrorism and fear of a return to chaos and poverty of the 1990s.

    Is this the end of an era? Hardly. It’s a continuation of Russia’s evolution following the collapse of communism. Putin isn’t the end point. He’s a step in a journey to an unknown destination. And like all journeys, this journey will have it twists and turns.

    Wish I could attend your class.

    DL: Yeah, I wish you could attend my class too.

    I see what you mean about the Remnick article. He marvels at the courage of a small minority of Russians and, to some degree, speaks from a position of hope. I just wanted to make sure that you did not find the article mindless.

    Per the role of civil society: I should say that there is a keen focus on the role of civil society in my AP Comp Gov course because I want my students to learn how to “make a difference” (as they seem to want to do) without having to go into government or big business. They are taught that Presidents and CEO’s make a difference. So we compare the health of civil societies in the countries whose political systems we study. So, that’s one reason that civil society bears attention in the class discussion.

    That said, healthy civil society is a non-negotiable prerequisite for a healthy democracy. Russia’s democratic deficit is in some part resultant from her civil society deficit. Basically what you argue is that Russian civil society is unhealthy compared to that of more democratic countries. You’re right.

    I can’t say for sure, but I have the distinct impression that the health of civil society in Russia is very weak in comparison to Western countries. Sysoyeva argues that there is a civil society vacuum. Remnick seems to argue that the best efforts to cultivate a healthy CS are stymied. Others, like these two, are more optimistic about the state of CS in Russia (this last article supports your point).

    In short, most of what I read suggests that, for various reasons that are understandable given Russia’s history and Federal Laws # 17 F-Z and #131-F, Russian CS is currently weak. I’ll go further and take a risk, Russia’s CS is too weak to support significant democratic reform.

    ED: I disagree with you concerning Russia’s civil society. To say that democracy is unlikely unless there is a large and vibrant civil society is akin to saying that the move from an authoritarian system to a democratic one will almost never happen. There are too many examples of that not being true to count. I believe that you and many not so analytical political scientists are putting the cart before the horse. Civil societies become large and vibrant because they are in a system that allows that to happen; it’s not the other way around.

    After 45 years of communism, most of the East European countries developed democratic systems fairly quickly and then they developed large and vibrant civil societies. The same could be said of South Korea in the 1970s. I’m not even sure one can argue that a large and vibrant civil society strengthens democracy. I had such a discussion with an East European academic who argued that if civil societies built and strengthened democracy, then communism would not have become entrenched in EE and the Nazis would not have fairly easily gained “totalitarian” control of Germany.

    Moreover, I did not say and do not believe that Russian civil society is “unhealthy” compared to Western democracies. Russian civil society is quite healthy. It is just not as established as in the West because it’s only been around for a couple of decades. Of course there are groups in Russia that do battle with the government over this or that issue and they lose. That happens in the US all the time too. Do you think the US Government never builds a road through a pristine wilderness over the objections of environmental groups? Does the difficulty that independent groups in the US have blocking the plans of the government or government supported corporations indicate that American civil society is unhealthy?

    I applaud your desire to get your students to be socially active without becoming government employees, but I do not see the evidence supporting the contention that civil society is a sufficient or necessary condition for democracy.

    DL: Your two core assertions that, a) “civil society is a sufficient or necessary condition for democracy” is terribly mistaken, and b) “Russian civil society is quite healthy” are both flat out wrong.

    I’m not sure how you could be so wrong but I suspect that you might have a narrow definition of civil society. Civil society refers to all organized, non-governmental, voluntary activities in a state. Examples that a narrow definition of CS might overlook are: trade unions, business and professional organizations, faith-based organizations, community groups, women’s advocacy groups, etc. Such CS agencies are absolutely, positively necessary for the proper functioning of a healthy, robust, and sustainable democracy.

    That said, you are correct that a “managed”, “illiberal”, or “sovereign” democracy, all of which are terms that have been used to describe post-communist Russia, can and do exist without a healthy CS. In other words, citizens can enjoy the right to vote (a central tenet of democracy) without CS. However, their rights to freely and safely protest or their right to a free and fair trial will not be protected without a healthy CS.

    This is precisely the case in Russia today. This is also the implicit assertion of Remnick’s thesis in the New Yorker piece. In order for Russia to move beyond managed/illiberal democracy, a space for Russian civil society must be created. But in the face of constant government pressure, some of which is brutal and downright Soviet, civil society remains fragile at the peril of democracy.

    Just the other day. Putin said that he would be interested to speak with the opposition. But he does not know with whom to speak. Now perhaps this is a disingenuous statement and a cheap and easy jab at the protest movement. But perhaps Putin is not being totally disingenuous here. Perhaps he would like to engage in dialogue with the movement (even if for his own benefit), but the movement is disorganized hodge podge of interests with no leadership, no clear base, and, as such, no one with whom to negotiate. As a result, this is likely an anomic protest that will fizzle away once the weather and/or the government pressure becomes unbearable.

    If CS were not so brutally oppressed by the Kremlin, a United Russia official could just pop over to the offices of “Russians for Free and Fair Elections” or “Chechens for Local Autonomy” or “Russian Doctors for Democracy” or “Journalists for Free Press”. But such groups hardly exist in Russia for reasons that Remnick and others make overwhelmingly clear. Russian civil society is not healthy. It is certainly not healthy enough to sustain a healthy democracy.

    Look, I’m sympathetic to the weakness of Russian democracy and CS. I don’t blame Russians. I understand the historical variables that have created for the comorbid weaknesses in democracy and CS in Russia. I get it.

    But, unlike you, I also understand that a healthy CS is a necessary condition for a healthy democracy.

    Given this fact, the discussion becomes more interesting and relevant when we discuss the “cart and horse” problem that you pose at the beginning of your previous statement. The correlation between CS and democracy (D) is clear. But this correlation raises all sorts of questions about a) the nature of the relationship between CS and D and b) the ways in which this relationship might be causal.

    The dialogue also becomes more interesting when we look at the best possible sequence of events. Because you are correct that CS cannot come before D. But D without CS is fragile. CS and D are clearly interdependent. Certain elements of D are necessary to enable/promote/sustain CS and vice versa. I am curious about this relationship.

    ED: I didn’t state that CS has no significance. I said you seemed to be overstating the significance. Without a CS that anyone would consider a healthy or fully formed CS, the people of Russia and EE overthrew their governments and replaced them with governments that were pledged to building democratic systems. [How well they fulfilled their pledges is a different story.] In 1930s Germany and in 1940s EE, societies with large and fully formed CS nevertheless fell prey to the rise of authoritarian systems. There are lots of reasons why those things happened and that’s my point. CS is at best a small part of the story and the lack of a healthy CS by no means means that reform can’t happen.

    The EE academic I spoke with several years ago actually argued that many organizations in a so-called SC worked to harm political development because they divert people’s attention from actual political development. If workers form groups that are focused on getting a raise or creating more jobs, if students form groups that are focused on music or literature or wild parties, if businesses form groups that are focused on their desire to pay workers less, then they won’t object and may not even care that their rights are being taken away so long as they can do or get what they want. She argued that many of the organizations associated with a CS can be a useful diversion for those who want to accumulate power. She was particularly upset at students who claimed not be interested in politics and focused instead on music, sports, fashion, and drinking. The Romans referred to this phenomenon as Bread and Circuses. Let the masses have their entertainments and activities because that will make it less likely that they will challenge our power.

    In a healthy democratic system there should be a healthy CS because people should be free to do what they want and to associate how they want. And of course they must be able to lobby the government and advocate their particular interests. But that goes back to the cart and horse. All those independent organizations exist because the powers that be allow them to exist. They play a role in democratic societies, but in the modern world they can be eliminated fairly easily too. British trade unions were some of the powerful trade unions in the world, but Thatcher crushed them. CS is an important part of a democratic system but the existence of a large and healthy CS does not guarantee that the system will continue or even that reform will take place. The British trade unions couldn’t stop Thatcher and PATCO couldn’t stop Reagan. As I said before, CS grows when a system is democratic but all the organizations that make up a CS did not create the democratic system nor do they prevent the end of that system. They can’t even safeguard their own existence in the most democratic of societies.

    To put it bluntly, democratic capitalism will flourish only if the powers that be feel it benefits them. Tyrannies will be destroyed only when people take mass action. Individual groups pursuing special interests (tax rates for capital gains, environmental issues, gay rights, etc.) as a rule do not successfully challenge established systems. All the lobbying groups in the US only call for changes that do not challenge the system. No group questions the Constitution or the power of Congress or the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s rulings or the privileges of private ownership. The successes of independent lobbying groups represent non-threatening change within the given system. If a CS organization is seen as a real obstacle to the exercise of power, then even in the most democratic systems that organization will be crushed (as Thatcher crushed the British trade unions that she felt were assuming powers reserved for Parliament and the Prime Minister).

    I guess I feel that on the one hand you are overstating the power of CS in the democratic West and on the other hand you are underestimating the ability of people in Russia to force change even though their CS does not measure up to your standard of health. The other difference between you and most people in Russia (and the students in my class) is that you attach great intrinsic value to democracy. I’ve come to believe that most people are much more interested in specific material outcomes and if democracy will get them what they want then they will support democracy and if democracy isn’t seen as the way to get what’s wanted then democracy will not be supported. It’s just a means to an end. After the experience of the 1990s, most people in Russia don’t see democracy as an effective way to rule the country. The strength of Russia right now (as opposed to a place like North Korea and maybe even China) is that people there are aware of their own history and of their own power to change things. That awareness coupled with the government’s awareness of that awareness (sorry to sound like Rumsfeld) means that change/reform is possible and probably even likely. Powerful governments act when they feel their power is threatened. The more successful governments will look for ways to placate their opponents. The less successful ones will simply lash out violently. I do expect some violence in Russia but I also expect the Russian Government to deliver more of what most people there want (once they figure out what most people want). Building democracy is not, unfortunately, on most people’s agendas.

    I, like you, do value democracy for its own sake but I also now believe that most people, even in the good old USof A, don’t share that value despite what they often say. I also think you are damned lucky to have a lot students who want to be involved in the world and who want to make a difference. I have few such students. I just wish you were a little more critical in your analysis of the theories regarding CS. No theory is true just because it is logical and makes sense. There must be an abundance of supporting evidence and a lack of contrary evidence.

    For what it’s worth, I do think you are one of the best students I’ve ever had.

    DL: Oh, you might be right. I don’t know. I suspect that we both, to varying degrees, appreciate the role that CS can play in aggregating, organizing, and articulating the interests of certain sectors of society (sometimes at the expense of other sectors). I chose to focus on the role of CS because a) I thought that you were/are understating its potential impact in Russia and b) we both read the Remnick piece and that was sort of our common ground for discussion. I’m sure that we could easily find lots of common ground on this issue.

    Though it pains me to say it, I might be with you when it comes to the fetishization of democracy.

    I suppose that the democracy question is relevant insofar as the marketplace of ideas surrounding the recent unrest in Russia is framed in terms of “the people” wanting “democracy”. Maybe this is because this is a simple, romantic, and easily marketable narrative that the Western press chews up. On the other hand, maybe this is because many Russians seem to be protesting for democratic reform. At the same time, maybe protesting Russians think that they want democratic reform when, in fact, they just want economic growth that they can feel, peace on the frontiers, freedom from terrorism, and fewer foreigners.

    Like you (and Churchill and others) I tend to argue that democracy is the worst form of governance except for the alternatives. I really don’t know how central democracy is to the current movement(s) in Russia. But I do think that, unlike other “democracy” movements around the world, Russia actually has many essential ingredients (literacy, higher education, free and healthy print press, global connections, etc.) that could support a robust democracy… should the people want one.

    Thanks for the kind words Jed. It’s worth a lot to me. Really.