Arab Spring, American Fall, now a Russian Winter?

In Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg have seen significant protests in recent days since the Dec. 4 elections to the State Duma. People have taken to the streets to demonstrate against what they see as an undemocratic government stricken by corruption and having no accountability to the population. The political scientist Thomas Carothers has termed such regimes “dominant-power systems,” characterized by periodic elections and varying degrees of political freedom, but also having state institutions controlled almost exclusively by a single party, with practically no electoral competition or turnover in office.

Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would once again run for president on United Russia’s ticket in March caused equal parts outrage and resignation among Russians, many of whom (along with Western observers) saw Dmitry Medvedev’s time in office as largely a placeholder. Since Russia’s constitution at the time prohibited Putin from serving more than two consecutive terms in office as president, the arrangement with Medvedev was a coordinated and temporary transfer of power, to give Putin’s likely return to office some semblance of constitutional legitimacy.

Is the road now set for Putin to win next year’s presidential election? Should that be the case, he could potentially stay in power until 2024, a remarkably long period of time that harkens back to the lifespans of various Cold War dictators. Yet the story is complicated somewhat by United Russia’s decline in the polls. The results of this election indicated a significant erosion of support for Putin and Medvedev’s United Russia party, dropping by ten percentage points from the previous election, to just under 50% this time around. United Russia still retained by far the highest percentage of votes. The Communist Party was second, with approximately 20%.

Prior to this election, observers had written that this election could serve as an early indicator of popular support for the future of United Russia. With the country being affected by the global recession, the economic boom of the Putin years that was driven by high energy prices and foreign investment (but little social development) has given way to stagnation. Whereas in the years of growth the authorities could count on a middle class that was largely content with United Russia’s grip on the country’s political system – so long as incomes were rising – today that is no longer the case. On Monday, December 5, more than 8,000 people rallied in Moscow for a protest against the election results. After being met by a counterdemonstration from the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi, over 250 arrests were made. Another 150 arrests followed the next day during a second rally.

Now United Russia has increasingly been referred to as the “party of crooks and thieves.” No longer pretending to believe that the country is run on the basis of the rule of law, Russia’s politically-stifled middle class has begun to more actively voice its opposition to the state plutocracy. To be sure, there is a significant amount of economic interest factoring into this. Businesses cannot be expected to operate efficiently if corruption in the form of patronage and government racketeering prevents them from maximizing gains and minimizing losses. For it to operate most efficiently, the unpredictability of the market depends on a predictability of law and order. When that relationship is reversed and the economic aspirations of the middle class no longer correspond to reality, the result is social strife.

Political resources are so concentrated in the hands of United Russia that it is nearly impossible to believe that the outcome of the presidential election is not prewritten. But we are left to wonder if the current protests indicate that the tacit agreement between United Russia’s control of political power and the middle class’s satisfaction with economic growth is irreparably broken.

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