The People Vs. Putin

Can a small but robust civil society trump the powerful Russian state? Or will the curse of oil ensure repression?

By Fareed Zakaria

“We exist!” the crowd in Moscow chanted. Even protesters in Russia have a literary and philosophical flair. They also have courage. Over the past decade, political opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime have been harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed. But still, these men and women took to the streets, marching in the Russian winter, asking for the same things protesters around the globe have been asking for—dignity, inclusion, participation and freedom. Can they succeed in Russia?

The conditions that led to the Arab Spring were various. But chief among them was a sense of alienation and exclusion from the political and economic power structures of the country. That sense is strong in Russia today. According to a survey by the Levada Center, 52% of Russians believe corruption among the country’s leadership is higher now than it was even in the 1990s. (In 2007 only 16% of respondents felt this way.)

The Arab Spring was also about connectivity. A young, restive population with access to social media and other technologies was able to see the outside world and understand its own backward condition. Russia has an aging and shrinking population, but the protesters in Moscow include many young urbanites connected to the world with all the new information technologies.

Russia also has another crucial component that was part of the Arab revolt: economic growth that created a new middle class and, with it, rising expectations. In Egypt and Tunisia, the economy had been growing for several years before protests began, and liberalization had opened new industries and sectors to the world. In Russia, per capita GDP almost doubled from 1998 to 2010 (in constant dollars). That is why Putin has been popular for years. Of course, the Russian economy was lifted up less by reform and more by high oil prices (now topping $100 per barrel), which empower not Russian society but the Russian state.

The great drama of Russian history has been between its state and society. Put simply, Russia has always had too much state and not enough society. Historians have pointed out that the Russian nation was literally the property of the Czar, that serfs were more like slaves than simply peasant workers and that the country lacked any institutions that contested the authority of the government. The communist takeover only enhanced these features by building a superstate that dominated every aspect of people’s lives. When it collapsed in 1991, it turned out there was only chaos underneath.

But there has always been a Russian civil society, small but vibrant, espousing universal values and human rights. It is the Russia of Tolstoy and Pasternak, Sakharov and Gorbachev, and it has always believed that Russia’s destiny lies with the West. This Russia has not died under Putin. In fact, it’s been growing quietly but vigorously over the past decade. In an article in Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs, Debra Javeline and Sarah Lindemann­Komarova describe a Russia in which civil society is having an increasingly large impact. There are more than 650,000 nongovernmental organizations in Russia today. Many of these groups are not overtly political, but they challenge governmental authority and decisions—on environmental grounds, for example—and sometimes they prevail.

Of course, the Russian state is still powerful, dominant and pervasive in politics and the economy. Despite all the stirrings of change, the power of the state, expertly wielded by Putin, should give one pause. It is not just that Putin has been able to reconstitute some of the apparatus of fear from the Soviet days. It’s also about money. The Russian state has at its disposal the greatest natural resources of any country in the world: oil, gas, diamonds, nickel, copper, aluminum. Those riches give the government the ability to both repress and bribe its population.

Consider this fact. Despite the sweep and force of the ­Arab Spring, it has not produced political change in a single oil-rich country. The revolution started in the deserts of the Maghreb in Tunisia. Morocco was quickly swept along. But right next door sits Algeria, more repressive than either of them and yet untouched by protests. It might be called an Arab Spring, but the discontent began a year and a half earlier in a non-Arab country, Iran, when the Green movement took to the streets. But the Iranian regime, which buys support with patronage and represses with its paramilitary, persists. The oil-rich Gulf states have also survived the winds of change—even in Bahrain, where the opposition enjoys strong support.

The Soviet Union fell when oil prices dropped to around $20 a barrel. If they were to drop again, as some predict, Russia’s state would lose its greatest asset. And if Russia’s civil society can produce even modest change against these odds, it will rewrite history.

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