Putin's Pyrrhic victory
His election as Russian president is assured. But make no mistake: There is a young, middle-class revolt underway in the country.

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Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin speaks as current President Dmitry Medvedev listens during a rally after Putin claimed victory in the presidential election at the Manezhnya Square March, 4, 2012 in Moscow, Russia. Exit polls showed Putin had over 58 percent of the vote according to state television in an election that has been alleged to be marred by widespread violations.

Article Highlights

  • Putin's 'victory' will only increase the hatred of the regime by the protest's vanguard

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  • POLL: 35% of #Russian adults thought presidential election would be 'dirty' + 13% are ready to act in public protests

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  • There is more bad news in these demographics for the #Putin regime

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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.

"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."- Leon Aron

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 Yegor 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.

Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at AEI. 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."

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About the Author


  • Leon Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of three books and over 300 articles and essays. Since 1999, he has written Russian Outlook, a quarterly essay on economic, political, social and cultural aspects of Russia’s post-Soviet transition, published by the Institute. He is the author of the first full-scale scholarly biography of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Russia’s Revolution: Essays 1989-2006 (AEI Press, 2007); and, most recently, Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 (Yale University Press, 2012).

    Dr. Aron earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, has taught a graduate seminar at Georgetown University, and was awarded the Peace Fellowship at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has co-edited and contributed the opening chapter to The Emergence of Russian Foreign Policy, published by the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1994 and contributed an opening chapter to The New Russian Foreign Policy (Council on Foreign Relations, 1998).

    Dr. Aron has contributed numerous essays and articles to newspapers andmagazines, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, theWall Street Journal Foreign Policy, The NewRepublic, Weekly Standard, Commentary, New York Times Book Review, the TimesLiterary Supplement. A frequent guest of television and radio talkshows, he has commented on Russian affairs for, among others, 60 Minutes,The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, CNN International,C-Span, and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Talk of theNation.”

    From 1990 to 2004, he was a permanent discussant at the Voice of America’s radio and television show Gliadya iz Ameriki (“Looking from America”), which was broadcast to Russia every week.

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