How to think about the Russian protests

I want to lay out a few facts that I fear get lost in all the chatter and media-driven excitement about the protests currently underway in Russia.

Yes, United Russia did cheat in the parliamentary elections in December. The distribution of different polling stations’ reports of their vote tallies had several statistical irregularities, such as abnormal upticks on ‘round’ percentages (i.e. 65%, 70%, 75%) of votes for United Russia.

But, no, United Russia did not steal the elections: even accounting for the liberal estimates of how many votes were falsified, United Russia would still be the dominant party. And westerners who hope for a more democratic, liberal Russia, need to explain and take account of that.

Yes, the blatant protests against United Russia, including signs on the streets of Moscow that read, “Mubarak, Qaddafi, Putin,” are unprecedented; and, yes, they are pushing the taboos against criticizing Putin in ways that have some vague similarities to the new willingness to criticize the Communist Party of the Soviet Union prior to Glasnost.

But, no, Putin is not going anywhere anytime soon. The government is mildly kleptocratic, and the FSB (successor to the KGB) occasionally punishes political enemies. But Russia never was North Korea – it’s far closer to the democratic West than to North Korea. And so these protests really aren’t quite as revolutionary and transgressive as most Western media outlets like to pretend.

In fact, Putin has been, and remains, wildly popular in Russia. The protesters we see on the streets of Moscow are part of a narrow slice of the population — educated, urban, middle class — and they do not reflect the majority even of that slice. Even if Russia’s presidential election in March is free and fair and democratic, Putin will be reelected by an enormous margin, to the happiness of most of the Russian populace. How, we westerners wonder, is he so popular?

  • Putin had really  lucky economic timing: He happened to come to power – hand picked by the new Federation’s ailing lush-in-chief – right as Russia was finally recovering from the destabilizing shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and, more importantly, just as global energy prices were undergoing an enormous, sustained, and unpredicted boom. This surge in prices was caused mostly by instability in the Middle East, partly attributable to 9/11 and U.S. invasions, and to the growing demand for energy that has attended China’s rise. Russia is one of the world’s great energy superpowers. Depending on your calculation, it has been in previous years either 1st or second in oil production, and it’s also the world leader in natural gas. So, from 2000 to 2008, Russia enjoyed spectacular GDP growth rates attributable to (1) an energy-export boom, and (2) some increase in foreign direct investment attributable to its new relative political instability and market reforms made in the 90s.
  • Most ordinary people don’t understand economics and global trade, and how their own livelihoods are affected by faceless forces beyond the control of any policy maker. To the ordinary Russian, Putin is to be thanked for the near doubling in her standard of living that she enjoyed in just 8 years of his presidency; just as, to the ordinary American voter, the president is single-handedly responsible for the latest quarter’s GDP growth.

Russia’s lucky energy-boom during the aughts, is the single most important reason for Putin’s continued popularity, and it’s also sort of obvious. There are a couple of other things going on as well.

  • We Westerners often forget that the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the instability that followed, was actually a deeply humiliating experience for the average Slavic Russian. Gorbachev, for all his accolades in the West, is a hated man in mainstream Russia. The Russians’ empire had fallen, and that wound to pride stung more than the economic boom ten years later (whose origin, again, they don’t understand) could repair. Russians are motivated by nationalist passions as much as by reasons. Putin is thus proudly held as a strong leader, who “kept Russia together” (to borrow the phrase they endlessly repeat), who increased its geopolitical weight and assertiveness, who exercised control over the “oligarchs,” who had so rapaciously taken advantage of Russia’s hectic and corrupt process of privatization.
  • Putin and United Russia maintain a significant amount of control over the media, most particularly Russian television stations. (Though I hasten to add, once more, that, no, you will not be imprisoned for criticizing Putin in a Russian newspaper.) Today’s protesters are disproportionately members of the tech-savvy, wired urban middle class, and they get their news and commentary from delightfully subversive bloggers. But the average, aging Russia voter gets it from a state-controlled television station.
  • Finally (dare I say it?) I think Putin’s bravado/machismo – not just the macho posturing, but the fact that he actually is a strongman – appeals to something in the Russian character. I’ve always been surprised how, in my interactions with Russians, even the urban/cosmopolitan/educated set seems to be “in to” macho gestures and the people who make them. Less subjectively, it’s undeniable that an American or northern or western European leader who engaged in high-profile judo matches or tiger hunts would be universally ridiculed, and forced to stop – but Putin still finds plenty of time for these and othershirtless photo-ops as well.

The thing that brought about Glasnost was not the failure of any one political leader or the spontaneous outbreak of protests per se, but the no-longer-deniable economic failure of Soviet communism. Russia today is booming, and economic trends look to continue that boom. In a few months, Putin will once again be the de jure president rather than merely the de facto, the protesters will have given up, and Russians as a whole will so enjoy the fruits of economic growth and increasing geopolitical influence that hey will forgive Putin for his occasional spats of tyranny, political terror, and gross theft.

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