A month ago the results of the vote for the Russian Duma (lower chamber of parliament) appeared settled – both for foreigners and for Russians, many of whom did not bother to vote. When the results came in, early this week, everything was back in question.
The massive loss of votes and face by the ruling party, in the midst of apparent popular resignation, suggests parallels with the Middle East. There also regimes in firm control for decades were suddenly upset and/or overthrown by unexpected popular movements – a process that is still underway.
Is Russia next in line?
The popular grievances are very similar: corruption – many describe the government as “swindlers and thieves”; concentration of power at the top, with a parallel growth of income inequality; economic uncertainty; lack of opportunity for youth, and a stagnant economy with a decaying infrastructure.
For the time being police action, the use of pro-government thugs and some “stimulus spending” are likely to restore some degree of order. But time is working against the current regime, and continuation of the status quo until the March 2012 presidential elections is far from guaranteed.
First, a large part of the population now sees the government as illegitimate. Memories of the Soviet police state are still fresh, and repression will only spur the formation of underground opposition networks such as flourished in the late communist period.
Second, government largesse is limited. The national budget is barely in the black and a half of it comes from oil and gas sales. Should the looming recession in the West lower demand for Russia’s raw materials, money for paying off the electorate, will quickly run dry.
Third, the current government, divided as it is between different interest groups, cliques and patronage networks, lacks both effectiveness and room to maneuver. Neither the administration (mostly staffed by ex-Soviet functionaries), nor the oligarchs in control of major economic sectors, show much managerial ability. In a crisis everyone is more likely to look after his own than to serve the common interest.
Finally there is the growing worldwide debacle of globalization, of which post-communist Russia has been an integral part. The Middle East is already on fire, but rumbles of discontent are being heard everywhere. As the crisis grows only an exceptionally capable and dedicated government will be able to navigate the storm – and such qualities are in short supply, in Russia as everywhere else.
An upheaval is thus probable, but here Russia has significant advantages.
It has experienced two revolutions in recent history: 1905 and 1917. Both were precipitated by military defeat, and both involved irreconcilable government models: divine right autocracy versus secular democracy. The resulting stalemate opened the door to bolshevism and Soviet tyranny.
Today war is not an issue, and neither is foreign interference. Russia has a modern economy and is rich in resources. Even in crisis it has the freedom and means to make its own decisions. It has experienced both full-scale socialism and, after its collapse, the worse kind of raw capitalism. Experience teaches.
Russia is also finally free of the split it endured since Peter the Great: the dichotomy between Russian ways and traditions, and imported European rationalism. In past crises Russia looked to the West for solutions. Today the West has its own problems. Russia controls its own destiny.
Its extraordinary success in disposing, almost bloodlessly, of the powerful grip of Soviet tyranny leaves much hope for the future.
This is a crisis, but Russians are a nation of survivors. They have seen much worse, and lived. They have surprised the world many times, and may well do so again.