Why the opposition lost to Putin

As Russia's opposition comes to terms with Sunday's results, the time has come for sober reflection. The conclusions are clear, if uncomfortable: Putin is back, and he may well be in for a long time.

There are many people in Russia who would sincerely like to see the end of Putin's system of power, but after months of protests it is time for a sober assessment of the situation. 

The system was expected to collapse any day: be it as the result of a sudden uprising of the entire nation, from Chechnya to Chukotka, or as the result of the peaceful actions of the opposition in the centre of Moscow. Some rather strange assumptions circulated widely. For instance, it was assumed that if thousands of protesters took to the streets at once, the authorities would not be able to ignore the protest.

Helped by government resources, a servile media and eager-to-please officials, Vladimir Putin enjoyed a comfortable victory on Sunday. Barring economic catastrophe, Russia's oppostion will now have to play a much longer game than they anticipated. Photo: Vitaly Ragulin

It turned out that, quite simply, it can if the actions of the masses are peaceful. Mass peaceful protest may be a powerful weapon in a democratic society with a free media. But in Russia, it was interpreted by the authorities as the result of machinations initiated abroad by enemies plotting our demise. And many Russians bought this version.

Another strange assumption was that the protests, which rapidly gained traction in Moscow, would spread across the entire country in an equally swift way. Actually, Russia is a very varied place. The level of political culture in Moscow and Petersburg is entirely different than in small, provincial cities, where the local population either doesn’t use the internet at all, or if it does, uses it entirely for entertainment, obtaining information solely from the propaganda broadcasts of Putin's TV. And in the northern Caucasus, let's say, many people vote according to clan logic, or - which is more likely - do not vote at all, giving the leadership the liberty to freely rig election results.

In a word, the world is a far more complicated place than it seemed to many of us at the beginning of December last year, when thousands of protesters suddenly took to the streets. To be even more precise: the lighting-fast arrival of the protest in response to the rigging of the parliamentary elections showed the authorities that the world is more complicated than it appeared to the Kremlin's political scientists. And that triggered the resignation of their main proponent – Vladislav Surkov. The further events then showed the 'political scientists of the opposition' that they are also far from an adequate understanding of the situation. The Kremlin has temporarily won back its position, and it cannot be ruled out that this period will be rather lengthy.

Today, we can finally analyse the unfolding situation without vanity and unnecessary illusions. I suggest that two key facts must be noted above all.

Common ground

First, the Russian 'white revolution' (let us called it that given the white ribbons that the protesters wore on their clothes) has nothing in common with those revolutions that have recently been seen in the Muslim world. The factors that made the protests successful in the Middle East were not at work in Russia.

‘The authorities and the opposition are actually very similar. They both want to consume already today, and nobody believes in grand ideas like communism or Islamic fundamentalism. The opposition is unhappy with the corruption of the authorities, and the authorities are unhappy with the fact that the opposition are imposing 'feed boxes' on them. In such a standoff, nobody wants to sacrifice their life or health by taking protests to the level of armed conflict.’

Ideology played a key role in Muslim countries. The ideals-less and corrupt authoritarian regime faced the dream of millions of people about a better future, which was supported by honest religious ideas. Let us put aside for now the question about how constructive or destructive such ideas are. Important is the fact that they mobilised if not millions then at least thousands of people to take up robust and even armed opposition against the regime. The protesters were prepared to shed blood in their fight for power and a better future, and the ruling groups lacked sufficient strength to suppress the opposition movement.

In today's Russia, no opposition to the ideology of the ideals-less and corrupt authoritarian regime exists. The authorities and the opposition are actually very similar in their affiliation with the consumer society of the Western world. Put more bluntly, they all want to consume already today, and nobody believes in the improvement of their lives with the help of grand ideas like communism or Islamic fundamentalism. The opposition is unhappy with the corruption of the authorities, which prevents the nation from consuming all kinds of amenities, and the authorities are unhappy with the fact that the opposition are imposing 'feed boxes' on them. In such a standoff, nobody wants to sacrifice their life or health by taking peaceful protests to the level of armed conflict. And because the majority of the nation trusts not the opposition but the authorities, which hold the tools for mass propaganda (TV above all), the 'white revolution' will result in nothing, at least for the time being.

Russia is not Ukraine

Second, the Russian 'white revolution' has little in common with the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. To be precise, the Russian and Ukrainian societies have in common the fact that they are consumer societies, meaning that they are by no means like the countries of the Muslim world with their strong ideological underpinning. However, it must be noted that when Viktor Yuschenko and Yulia Tymoshenko beat Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv, the country was split along regional lines. It is well known, for instance, that Yanukovych drew on the sources of his power in the Donbass region, while the Orange group was popular in the west of the country and in the major, industrialised region of Dnepropetrovsk. Back then, it was not possible to establish the power vertical in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin had engineered in Russia at the very beginning of the new century.

In this sense, the situation in Kyiv in the mid-noughties was similar to that in Moscow in 1991, when the standoff of various elites allowed the opposition to win in the person of Boris Yeltsin. In other words, it was not Russia following Ukraine in accordance with the Orange Revolution; the opposite was the case, Ukraine was following Russia, by first staging a democratic revolution and then sliding back into authoritarianism. Today, Yanukovych is building a regime in Kyiv which resembles in many ways that of Putin in Moscow. That said, it is likely that Ukraine will have to align far more strongly with European democratic values than Russia, because the oil and gas riches give Putin far more wriggle room than Yanukovych.

But is it Belarus? 

If we wish to understand what to expect in Russia today, we should not look to the events unfolding in the Middle East or to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but to how the relations between the authorities and the opposition are panning out in Belarus. The events taking place in Minsk have undeservedly slipped into the background of late. Probably because there were no such clear information triggers as in the Middle East or in Ukraine. And, on the other hand, because everyone wanted to believe that a more pleasant future was in store for Russia than what Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is often called the last dictator in Europe, offers his citizens.

'The Belarus opposition has far more experience of operating under the conditions of an authoritarian regime than the Russian opposition and often acts more nobly. But nevertheless, the Lukashenka regime is still intact, albeit far weaker than compared to its heyday'

However, our willingness to believe in the better must not get in the way of a realistic analysis of the facts. And the facts are these: Lukashenka built an authoritarian regime, which has existed for one and a half decades already, by violating all democratic norms. The president of Belarus entered into a harsh conflict with a large proportion of Minsk's population, who are guided by European values, already a long time ago. This confrontation sometimes becomes very severe. The Belarus opposition has far more experience of operating under the conditions of an authoritarian regime than the Russian opposition and often acts more nobly. But nevertheless, the Lukashenka regime is still intact, albeit far weaker than compared to its heyday.

It is most likely that Russia is today entering a long era of opposition to the authoritarian regime. The experience of Belarus shows that it is not worth hoping for a quick solution to the problem of establishing democracy. What is more, Putin - as opposed to Lukashenka - has his own oil and gas, and as a consequence a significant inflow of petrodollars from abroad. This gives him more scope for manipulation than the Belarus dictator, who is permanently required to ask Russia for resources.

The thinking is that the possibility of a serious economic crisis is the Achilles' heel of the Putin regime. If the oil price falls, the protest situation will become an entirely different one than what we have been seeing over the past three months. Having missed the opportunity to raise the real incomes of the country's population, Putin his using his key bargaining chip. The Russian consumer society wants to be fed, and only in return for that will it accept authoritarian power. But a regime that does not feed is unlikely to be popular amongst the people living deep inside Russia, who are today the Kremlin's main base of support.

What is more, in the event of an economic crisis, the capital intellectuals protesting today, who were not able to shatter Putin's regime, will come together in their assessments of the ruling power with the provinces whose financial position will become extremely difficult. In such a case, Putin may regret not wanting to speak to the opposition on the turn of 2011-2012. But it will be too late to save the regime.

About the author

Dmitri Travin is Research Director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Centre of Modernization Studies