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Popular Demonstrations in Russia and Putin’s Return to the Presidency

Prof. Nivedita Das Kundu, Ph.D, Teaches at York University, Toronto, Canada, also President, Academic & International Collaboration, Liaison College, Brampton, Ontario, Canada.
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  • January 23, 2012

    Since December, rallies and demonstrations are being held in Moscow and other big Russian cities in a show of anger over the alleged vote fraud in favor of Putin’s United Russia Party in last year’s Parliamentary elections. It is expected that the number of protesters in a planned demonstration on February 4 in various Russian cities will exceed the 100,000 who participated in the December 24, 2011 demonstration held in Central Moscow.

    Opposition leaders, scholars and celebrities have called for Putin’s ouster. The foreign media and some Russian media have been talking about former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Alexei Navalny as future political figures. They are also debating the consequences of Mikhail Gorbachev’s suggestion that Putin should step down and his comparison of the demonstrations in Russia with the ‘Arab Spring’. This raises the question of whether these demonstrations are similar to the ‘Colour Revolutions’ that were earlier fomented and financed by foreign powers. A related question is whether a change of political leadership will satisfy the people of Russia who are already tired of liberal experiments. While some analysts dismiss the possibility of Russia being fundamentally affected by this wave of unrest, others do take seriously the prospect of such a movement spreading throughout Russia and into its neighbouring states. Leaving aside the question of whether this movement would be good or not for Russia, it is important to assess the likelihood of its success.

    The general discourse is that it is highly unlikely that this movement will be able to prevent Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin. Political scientists contend that neither the Bolotnaya Square rally nor the drives led by Alexei Kurin or Alexei Navalny would make any significant impact on the political decision-making process in Russia due to a variety of reasons. It is well known that Russia has little tradition of major street protests, apart from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution; and whenever such revolutions or movements occurred, dissent was crushed. Therefore, there is lesser possibility of such revolutionary movements taking root in Russia for long. Then, there are the constraints of the internal system and the limited expectation of the masses about the utility of such movements—they have witnessed and experienced similar movements in the past, are very well aware about the consequences, and are unlikely to support any drastic decisions. It is, however, feared, that the movement can generate considerable disturbance and chaos. Political uncertainty has already affected Russia’s stock market and the Ruble. The Ruble-denominated MICEX index fell by 3.8 per cent, the dollar-based RTS index dropped by 4.7 per cent, and the Ruble went down by 1.3 per cent against the US Dollar (according to reports as on January 1, 2012).

    Putin has sought to downplay this upsurge, saying that demonstrations are common in any ‘democracy’. However, can protests thwart Putin’s comeback plans? The general public opinion shows that despite the outpouring of discontent in the December 24 rally, in cities other than St. Petersburg and Moscow, there is no better alternative for Putin. Putin remains Russia's most popular politician and leader. He has strong support in the provinces, where he is regarded as the man who restored order in Russia after the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was clear from the very beginning that after a stipulated period of time his return would be evident. There will be no abrupt changes in the Russian political scene; on the contrary, continuity will prevail within the government structure with Putin and Medvedev changing their positions but retaining the reins of power in their hands. Nonetheless, Putin’s return to the presidency might well result in a change of style or some slight shifts in policy.

    Although recent demonstrations have been accompanied by a drop in support for Putin, his average rating has only dipped from 60–61 per cent to 51 per cent. This dip can be attributed to the general emotional background in the post-election period and the effect of the demonstrations. Further, there is also discontent among people about the high corruption rate in the country; Russia was ranked at 143 out of 182 countries in Transparency Internationals’ corruption index for 2011. There are also defects in the political system, which need to be reformed. At the same time, the present government’s measures to stabilize the economy in a period of international turbulence as well as Russia’s WTO membership have been highly appreciated by the majority of the population.

    The prediction is that Putin will overcome ongoing protests and return as President in the March elections, although his popularity could fall further if he fails to respond to the growing signs of discontent on certain significant issues—some of which deal with transparency and accountability. His first task must be to deal with these issues that have triggered the mass protests. Further, Putin must also not attempt to remain in power till 2024 and instead prudently groom younger politicians as the future leaders of Russia.

    Dr. Nivedita Das Kundu is an expert on Russia and the former Soviet States. She is presently working with the Indian Council for Social Science Research, New Delhi. She can be reached at dr.