Putin’s Pyrrhic victory

Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming "Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991."

Vladimir Putin is poised to win more than 50% of the vote Sunday and thus be “elected” president of Russia again. That’s not surprising: He has barred every pro-democracy opposition leader from running and limited the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens, who get their news mostly from the national television channels, to government propaganda. And after the spectacular and well-documented falsification of the results of the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, no one doubts that the wholly-owned Kremlin subsidiary that is the Central Election Commission will “draw,” as they say in Russia, any number that the boss orders.

However, this will be a Pyrrhic victory. Far from enhancing the Putin regime’s legitimacy, the election will diminish it further in the eyes of a significant part of the Russian population. How significant? According to a February poll of eligible voters by the most reputable of Russia’s polling firms, the Levada Center, 35% of the respondents thought that the election would be “dirty.” Furthermore, 13% of the adults polled said they were ready to participate in public protests.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Putin’s “victory” will only increase the hatred of the regime by the protest’s vanguard and will further alienate its members, adding to their determination and intensity. These are the tens of thousands of men and women who demonstrated in December, January and February under the “Putin must go” slogans and carried effigies of Putin in a striped prison uniform, “wanted” for “usurpation of power” or “theft.”

To be sure, these protesters are a minority, as the Kremlin is never tired of reminding everyone. But so what? Few, if any, regime changes, let alone revolutions, have been started by the majority. The majority has families to feed and a living to make. It is the younger, the urban, the better educated who have led successful modern revolutions. And recent revolutions have added one critical factor: People who start them are getting uncensored news and opinions from the Internet and social media, not state-controlled television.

And make no mistake about it: This is a young, middle-class revolt. According to the Levada Center’s polling, 62% of demonstrators who protested on Dec. 24 had college degrees or higher; a quarter were younger than 25 and more than half were under 40; almost half were professionals and almost a quarter were either managers or owners of businesses. At 12%, college students were the third-largest category. A plurality supported the “party of intelligentsia,” the center-left Yabloko. More important still, almost 7 in 10 identified themselves as “democrats” or “liberals.”


There is more bad news in these demographics for the regime. They appear to repeat the dynamics of successful post-authoritarian democratic modernization sketched in the writings of Samuel Huntington, Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset: After a period of record economic performance, a hugely expanded middle class is no longer content to enjoy unprecedented personal freedom and prosperity and wants to have political liberty and a say in governing. This is the road to democracy traveled by southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Greece) in the 1970s and the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan) in the 1980s. (As my late friend, the Russian reformer, economist and economic historian Igor Gaidar, used to say: Russia is behind the West by about 50 years.)

Yet there is an even more compelling antecedent to Russia’s protests. Every modern revolution, in essence, has been about morality and dignity, about citizens asserting themselves against an arrogant, overbearing, overcentralized and corrupt state. “Listen to us!” “Don’t step on us!” “Don’t lie to us!” “Don’t steal from us!” -- these key slogans of the Russian Spring are indistinguishable from those that inspired not only the Arab Spring but also the “color revolutions” (in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere) of the last decade.

But these Russian slogans are not borrowed from Arabic, Ukrainian or Georgian. They were home-grown more than 20 years ago, driven then as now by the same moral imperatives of dignity in liberty and democratic citizenship. For Mikhail Gorbachev then, the “renewal” of the society was inseparable from “the struggle for the dignity of man, his elevation, his honor.” One of the glasnost era’s finest essayists, Yuri Chernichenko, saw “millions learning to spell ' My ne raby’: ‘We are not slaves!’ ” In a draft constitution, on which he was working until an hour before his death in December 1989, scientist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov made securing “social, economic and civil rights of the individual” the state’s main “goal.”

This so passionately hoped-for restoration of human dignity puts one in mind of Alexis de Tocqueville’s marvelous image in “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” where he compares continuity in national political and social phenomena to rivers that, after going underground, “re-emerge at another point in new surroundings.” If what we are seeing today in Russia is indeed the mighty river, which had flowed so widely and deeply in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, went underground in 2000 and is now re-emerging, swelling and quickening, it is hard to see how it can be prevented from sweeping away the current regime in yet another attempt at remaking Russia.