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Russian Spring?

The numbers are still lopsided: tens of thousands of riot police  against hundreds of opposition protestors. The latter are organizing via social networks and plan a demonstration in the thousands on Saturday across Russia. Vladimir Putin faces demonstrations increasing in determination and anger as international criticism mounts. What set it off is the disputed Russian ...

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The numbers are still lopsided: tens of thousands of riot police  against hundreds of opposition protestors. The latter are organizing via social networks and plan a demonstration in the thousands on Saturday across Russia. Vladimir Putin faces demonstrations increasing in determination and anger as international criticism mounts. What set it off is the disputed Russian Duma elections in which Putin's United Russia party claims to have barely won a majority.

That such protests even exist and are growing is an encouraging sign for Russia democracy watchers. The shattering of the myth of "stable" authoritarianism has come to Putin's new czarist state.

The numbers are still lopsided: tens of thousands of riot police  against hundreds of opposition protestors. The latter are organizing via social networks and plan a demonstration in the thousands on Saturday across Russia. Vladimir Putin faces demonstrations increasing in determination and anger as international criticism mounts. What set it off is the disputed Russian Duma elections in which Putin’s United Russia party claims to have barely won a majority.

That such protests even exist and are growing is an encouraging sign for Russia democracy watchers. The shattering of the myth of "stable" authoritarianism has come to Putin’s new czarist state.

Many of us had all but given up hope that Russian democrats were bold enough and of sufficient numbers to attempt to reclaim freedom . Now we have media reports abounding and with pictures and video of Russians chanting "Russia without Putin" and other anti-regime and pro-democracy slogans.

Having jailed as much of the opposition as he thought necessary as well as controlling the media and the electoral machinery, Putin seemed to assume over the last couple of years that his plan to let his hand-picked President Medvedev spell him for a term in the Kremlin while Putin served as prime minister was succeeding. He even counted on wowing Russians with shirtless horse-rides and exotic hunts for dangerous animals. What he seems not to have counted on is that it is hard to kill a democracy movement so easily in a country connected to the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, and one with large numbers of citizens regularly interacting with the West. He seems not to have calculated that there would be an Arab Spring and his democratic countrymen would take courage from it. I confess to having been rather doubtful myself that there could be a second Russian democratic awakening.

But in the last several weeks, as Putin was getting less and less affirmation from Russians for the figure he was trying to cut on the stage of Russian politics — he was booed vigorously at a recent martial arts expo — it became clear that Russians care more about the sad decline of the economy that United Russia has presided over than his theatrics. They care more about justice and rights and good governance than the stability Putin promised (threatened?) through the "managed democracy" he said they preferred. They have this in common with a lot of people in the world, from Caracas to Tehran, from Cairo to Lusaka.

Witness Putin’s being able to barely take 50 percent of the seats in the Duma and that was probably accomplished with a good dose of electoral fraud. It must be particularly irritating for Putin to have both Secretary of State Clinton and Gorbachev teaming up on him. She has called for a full investigation of the electoral fraud charges; Gorbachev is increasing his denunciations of Putin’s tenure and calling for new elections. Putin has reacted by blaming the U.S. for inciting the protests. While Putin will very likely stay in control because there are enough parties for sale in the Duma to make a substantial majority, nevertheless, the bloom is off the rose.

Liberal Russians are reinvigorated and taking to the streets. They are now facing off against all those who have been bought off by the United Russia machine-not just the government through its interior ministry and police forces, but also all those whose material well-being is afforded by allying themselves with the regime; Putin’s cadres are out in the streets to show support for the regime.

We cannot yet know how this will turn out: will brute force once again cow the demonstrators? Will this unrest lead to an investigation and admission of fraud? Or, might it possibly lead to his own failure to win the presidential election next year, or at least his having to steal it in such a way that it cannot be plausibly hidden?

There is precedent: the Soviet police state apparatus failed to uphold the Communist Party’s interests in 1990-1991, leading to the downfall of Gorbachev and the rise of a more liberal if chaotic order under Yeltsin. It is too soon to know if such a thing could happen again, but given how many of the corrupt and authoritarian regimes the world over have fallen or are tottering today, Putin is likely to take no chances. We should expect prolonged disorder and violence if the protestors are determined for the long haul this time.

What should U.S. policy be? First, let’s be done with "reset" policies and take a lesson: pretending that authoritarians are democrats is not only a waste of time, it is to be on the wrong side of history. The Obama administration should see the regime for what it is and treat it and the Russian citizenry as what they are: a corrupt dictatorship hanging on to power by force and fraud leveled against a people who demand to be treated as citizens, not slaves. Who knows how numerous the opposition is, but the elections reveal it is no longer a handful of people.

Irving Kristol wrote over twenty years ago at the dawn of the new Russia that while the Russian people might never clamor for a full U.S.-style democracy, now that they have the vote, they will demand that it and the rule of law be respected.

We should be on their side, the right side of history, and help move history by encouraging the good guys and supporting them in material ways as we have before in our long history of being the last best hope of freedom for mankind.

Paul J. Bonicelli is professor of government at Regent University, and served as the assistantadministrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.
Tag: Russia

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