Russian Resolution

by Timothy Frye ’92SIPA, ’97GSAS Published Spring 2012
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Vladimir Putin / Illustration by Craig LaRotonda

Vladimir Putin won the presidential election in March, but was bruised along the way by spirited street protests. Timothy Frye, director of Columbia’s Harriman Institute, explains what a weakened Putin means for Russia.

As I rode in from Sheremetyevo Airport on the morning of December 10, 2011, the streets were nearly empty. Then, as we crossed the Garden Ring road to enter central Moscow, I saw the first security forces and personnel carriers. When we approached the Kremlin, riot police in full gear were preparing to take their positions, and as we passed over the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, a long line of buses and police wagons waited to take demonstrators to jail.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Everyone expected that — with some creative counting by the Central Election Commission — the December parliamentary elections would give a solid majority to the ruling United Russia Party. Then the March 2012 presidential election would certainly return Vladimir Putin to the presidency without incident.

Yet now, six days after volunteer election monitors began posting YouTube videos of ballot stuffing, vote fraud, and multiple voting, some forty thousand demonstrators gathered on Bolotnaya Ploshchad (Swampy Square) in central Moscow to protest that fraud and call for new elections. In a rare show of unity, nationalists, liberals, and leftists put aside their divisions to direct their grievances toward the Kremlin. The mood was more akin to a carnival than a revolution. One poster mocked Putin’s alleged use of Botox. Another offered election-commission chairman Vladimir Churov a copy of Counting Votes for Dummies. Police officers looked on while deciding whether the weight of the protesters would collapse the bridge over the Moscow River.

Two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, that solidarity was still holding, as one hundred thousand demonstrators gathered on Andrei Sakharov Square in Moscow. Emboldened by the Kremlin’s feeble response, speakers took turns denouncing the government for its corruption and calling on Putin to resign. Demonstrations continued in the run-up to the March 4 presidential election.

Considering that these were hardly the first fraudulent elections in Russia, the size of the protests surprised everyone, including the demonstrators themselves. In the days before the demonstrations, a Russian journalist friend bet me that no more than five thousand people would join him at the first protest. In the end, an academic colleague said that the demonstrations were like a school reunion: he ran into many friends whom he had not seen in years.

Most of the demonstrators appeared to come from the middle class, a group that had prospered under Putin. Thanks in large part to high energy prices and sound macroeconomic policy, Russia’s economy doubled between 1998 and 2008 and rebounded quickly from the global financial crisis. Russia’s GDP per capita stands at more than $16,000, significantly outperforming its emerging-market peer group of Brazil, India, and China. Moscow’s standard of living rivals that of southern Europe, and Russia has the largest Internet market in Europe, with more than fifty million users. One poll estimated that roughly 70 percent of demonstrators at the December 25 protest had attended college. One Kremlin insider referred to the demonstrators as the “best people” of Russia. For this and other offenses, he was unceremoniously demoted.

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