Russian Resolution

by Timothy Frye ’92SIPA, ’97GSAS Published Spring 2012
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Illustration by Craig LaRotondaAlexei Navalny, a thirty-six-year-old lawyer turned anticorruption activist, is the most prominent of a new generation of opposition leaders to emerge from the demonstrations. He won his fame by scouring the purchasing requests of state-owned companies on the Internet and publicizing the most egregious abuses on his organization’s website, Rospil.ru. Navalny rallied the opposition by branding the ruling elite “the party of crooks and thieves” and helping to attract popular literary figures, such as the writer Boris Akunin, and celebrities, such as Ksenia Sobchak, Russia’s own Paris Hilton. Protesting became cool.

Within a few weeks, the demonstrations had pierced Putin’s aura of invincibility. Protesters were bold enough to hang a large banner opposite the Kremlin calling on Putin to resign and to circulate a fake news report on the Internet showing Putin on trial in a Moscow courtroom. Staging these events would have been unimaginable a few weeks earlier.

The demonstrations caught the Putin administration off-guard. After initially blaming Hillary Clinton for the disorder, Putin mocked the protesters’ white ribbons, saying they reminded him of condoms. His usual mix of machismo and pointed humor failed badly. But he soon regained his balance and turned the tables on the demonstrators. His team organized large counterdemonstrations, including one on February 4, in which 120,000 Putin supporters turned out in western Moscow to counter an equal number of anti-Putin demonstrators gathered in the center of the city.

Putin also decided to change his strategy. In previous years, he had found favor with both the middle class and the lower class: economic growth had helped him draw support from the emerging middle class, and increased state spending had gained him favor from socially vulnerable pensioners, state workers, and rural populations. However, the demonstrations and voting patterns in the parliamentary elections indicated that Putin was losing the young, urban, and educated populations, and that his supporters were now older, more rural, and less well off than in previous elections. Putin’s campaign turned to populist economic policies to appeal to this audience by raising pensions and salaries for the military and many other state workers.

Putin also played the nationalist card with fervor. His campaign’s most common tactic was to accuse the demonstrators of being in league with foreigners, often in the employ of the US government, who were intent on dismantling Russia. His pre-election foreign-policy platform mentioned only two potential enemies: NATO and the US.

On March 4, with thousands of security officers in full riot gear on the streets, Russians cast their ballots for president. The results surprised no one: only Kremlin-approved candidates were permitted in the race, and Putin’s faux foes included two four-time losers of presidential elections (Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky), a thoroughly compromised ally (Mironov), and a political neophyte, albeit a wealthy one (Prokhorov). Incumbents who choose their opponents tend to do well; Putin won 64 percent of the vote.

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