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Analysis & Opinion
16.12.11 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: From Arab Spring To Russian Winter?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Dick Krickus, Edward Lozansky, Nicolai Petro, Anthony Salvia, Ira Straus, Alexandre Strokanov, Andrei Tsygankov

Tens of thousands of ordinary Russians turned up for a rally in downtown Moscow on December 10 to protest against massive vote rigging during the December 4 parliamentary elections. They called for a cancelation of the election results, a new election and for election officials to be fired. Is this the end of Putin’s stability? Is Russia on the brink of a tectonic societal shift? Is this the Russian equivalent of the “Arab spring” or, more appropriately, the “Russian winter?” How will the street protests affect the upcoming presidential elections next March?

The trigger appeared to be the widely-documented evidence of massive vote fraud in Moscow, where United Russia’s official results (46.5 percent) greatly exceeded exit poll data collected by the pro-Kremlin Foundation for Public Opinion (27 percent). This meant that in Moscow alone, about a million votes were brazenly stolen to skew the election results in favor of United Russia. Without this fraud, United Russia would not have secured its 238-seat simple majority in the new Duma. Yabloko finished third in Moscow with about 20 percent of the vote, and without the vote rigging would have probably made it into the Duma.

The public protests shook Russia’s system of managed democracy to its core and put the authorities on the defensive. Russia’s political system has been based on coercive manipulation of public opinion and public politics, not outright repression, and on the genuine popularity of Vladimir Putin. But as U.S. political analyst Donald Jensen noted, “the embarrassment inflicted on United Russia showed that Russia’s implicit social contract between the regime and the ruled – economic growth in return for giving up political power – is starting to fray.” Jensen further argued that United Russia’s poor performance at the polls “also demonstrates that Putin’s job switch with Medvedev struck many Russian elites as a cynical ploy to perpetuate the rule of leaders more interested in power than in coping with Russia's problems.”

Indeed, it could well be argued that a massive protest vote against United Russia was in large measure a vote against Putin’s return to the presidency. As Russian political commentator Fyodor Lukyanov argues, Putin grossly miscalculated with the way he announced his comeback in September, which demoralized the elites and failed to arouse any enthusiasm in Russian society.

Putin, Medvedev and other Russian officials reacted to the public protests in Moscow and other cities in ways that only underscored their increasing detachment from reality. Putin blamed the United States for instigating the protests, his spokesman said the government had “no position” in regard to the mass rally in Moscow, while Medvedev improbably sought to downplay the scale of electoral fraud, calling Vladimir Churov, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission widely blamed for electoral violations, a “wizard.”

For the entire week, Russian state television channels simply ignored the protests, while covering the pre-paid rallies by Nashi and other pro-Kremlin youth groups. The Kremlin’s political strategist, Vladislav Surkov, has suggested, somewhat belatedly, that the government should create a popular liberal party, comprised of “annoyed city communities” to soak up the discontent.

Putin now goes into the presidential campaign significantly weakened; his ratings are going down while his Teflon status has been scratched. He exhibits signs of grossly misreading the public mood and shifting toward Soviet era stylistics, appealing to older voters while ignoring the young. He appears to have lost his edge, while the so called “Putin’s majority” – a combination of different social groups that for different reasons have genuinely supported Putin until now – is unraveling. He either has to reinvent himself in the next two months or blame the West for his troubles, which is likely to be a losing strategy. He is, of course, fortunate to have an uninspiring list of likely opponents in the presidential vote – Communist leader Gennady Zuganov, the Liberal Democartic Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Putin’s friend Sergei Mironov, the leader of the Just Russia party.

Is this the end of Putin’s stability? Is Russia on the brink of a tectonic societal shift? Is this the Russian equivalent of the “Arab spring” or, more appropriately, the “Russian winter?” Will the street protests fade out or force the authorities to yield to the protesters’ demands, such as annulling the Duma election results and repealing the draconian political party registration law? How will the street protests affect the upcoming presidential elections next March? Is Putin’s victory in doubt? Is he really vulnerable? What does the authorities’ response say about their ability to handle this crisis?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Chair of Social Science Department, Director of Institute of Russian language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT

The demonstration in Moscow on December 10 is a good example of the gradual development of Russian civil society, as well as the fact that the Russian government finally is learning the word “tolerance.” Boris Yeltsin’s regime, which was so popular in the West and employed many of today’s opposition leaders (Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov) was much less tolerant. In other words, Vladimir Putin certainly won the first round of his presidential campaign. He showed the country that he is not afraid of such meetings and demonstrations. His decision to have the “call-in” with the country on December 15 is equally wise.

The rally itself was quite interesting. It brought together a wide spectrum of political forces, but it was dominated by the nationalists and the leftists. The official results of the election confirm that the latter represent the real character of contemporary Russian opposition. This diversity has strong and weak aspects. Strong because it adds legitimacy and weak because people that came to this rally will never work together outside of it and will never agree on anything else.

Without any doubt the Russian people have the right to protest regardless of how their party performed in the election. However, the ultimatum passed to the Kremlin at the meeting is a different story and, of course, it is not going to be implemented. No leaders of the four major political parties were present at the protest. I am also quite sure that none of the parties that secured seats in the State Duma will reject their mandates, insist on a new election or support the proposal to change the law on political parties. Consequently, the chances of a new election are slim, and other points of the ultimatum will soon be of interest only to Eduard Limonov, Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Udaltsov, Evgeniya Chirikova and other “professional revolutionaries” in Russia.

It is well-known that revolutions are usually made in capitals. However, the presidential election will be held not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but in all of Russia, where more realistic people will not wish to lose the country the second time in just 20 years. Twenty years ago the Soviet Union was destroyed by its elite, including Mikhail Gorbachev, who is demanding new elections today. Self-annihilation is threatening the Russian Federation today, and hopefully the Russian people understand that.

At the same time, Vladimir Putin must learn from these events to correct his course. Mikhail Prokhorov’s participation in the presidential election is an excellent idea. If Prokhorov performs successfully and the so-called “new urban middle class” is real, consolidated and electorally active, the “liberal oligarch” may become the next prime minister instead of Dmitry Medvedev, who is out of fashion among liberals now. However, in my opinion, it is not very likely, and in March we will probably witness another proof of socialist-communist leaning in the country, despite the obviously uncharismatic and even unattractive leadership on this part of the political spectrum. Changes in Russia are because of the general failure of the post-Soviet capitalist experiment in the country, and more people who begin to understand it are intuitively turning to the left.

From here we may see a few purely hypothetical but still possible scenarios of the future. Let’s begin with an “unrealistic” but the most dangerous scenario: Russian “professional revolutionaries,” inspired by some Western governments, form the “committee of national salvation” and it paralyses the country with non-stop demonstrations, protests and strikes; blood is spilled on the streets of Moscow and several other cities. The “revolutionaries” announce that the results of the election on December 4 are void and a new election is called in March 2012. Putin is isolated from the government and the vertical of power is collapsing, the country is sliding into the chaos known to people who lived through the end of the Soviet Union. Ethnic republics, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and all of the Northern Caucasus, where United Russia won a majority of votes, announce their independence from Moscow, but gradually slide into civil war with the “Islamists.” Some ethnically Russian provinces, rich in mineral resources, do not recognize the authority of the “revolutionary committee” and announce their sovereignty. Foreign capital and rich Russians flee the country, the economy collapses and inflation spirals out of control. Elections in the spring divide the State Duma between nationalists and leftists, who immediately begin to fight among themselves and the country continues to exist only on maps printed before 2011. Western countries call it the triumph of democracy and award the “revolutionaries” the Noble Peace Prize and permanent residence in London and Paris. If you do not think that this is possible, look at Gorbachev and at Iraq and Libya today.

The realistic scenario is as follows: the sixth Duma will go in session on December 21 with all four major parties in it. None of the parties represented in the State Duma will ever mention any demands made at the meeting on December 10 in their activities. After December 24 the protests will lose their energy and things will gradually calm down over the holiday season. However, anti-Putin rhetoric, sponsored by the West, will intensify again closer to the presidential election in March 2012. The situation may again become unpredictable. There will be a high possibility of terrorist attacks and other man-made critical situations that will test the ability of the government to act decisively and target Putin as a leader. However, Putin will win the election and will have to decide on the new paradigm of his presidency for the following six years. If he chooses to continue the “liberal course” and Mikhail Prokhorov becomes the new prime minister, a social explosion may happen in the next few years or as soon as truly popular leaders appear on the left who are able to consolidate the largest part of the political spectrum in Russia. If Putin decides to go “left” after the election by himself, we may see a two party system representing the interests of the majority of the people, with really competitive and fair elections.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and the United States-Russia Forum in Washington, DC

Let us try to leave emotions aside and look at the hard facts. There was some cheating and rule violations during the recent Duma elections, and therefore the people’s anger over this was well justified. However, the final results did correspond to the most reliable polls within the margin of error, both on the eve of the elections and at the exit polls. Actually, some of these polls predicted an even higher share of votes for United Russia. The people’s activism in and after the election is a welcome sign of Russia’s maturing democracy, and if the opposition continues to play by the rules and within the framework of the law, there is a good chance that in the not-so-distant future Russia will make substantial headway in this direction.

Unfortunately, there are strong indications that this democratization process may result in the strengthening of the left, rather than the pro-Western right, and if the United States has any leverage there at all, it is unwisely using it to undermine the very political forces that it is anxious to support.

Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the Russian elections is the most recent striking example of this poorly designed policy. It does not take a brilliant political strategist to see that it is not the Duma composition or even a fair election process that Clinton and some other folks in Washington care about. They do not want Putin in the Kremlin, and are prepared to use so-called “soft power,” including informational warfare and even direct financial investments, to undermine his chances of reelection. It was none other than Vice President Joseph Biden who, on a recent trip to Moscow, strongly advised Putin not to run. One would assume that if Putin had any doubts about his future plans, Biden’s unsolicited advice merely reinforced his decision to run. As it transpired, the U.S. taxpayers’ money is being used not only to support Russian organizations critical of the Kremlin, but to directly reward all those who can present any case of election fraud. In other words, there is a financial incentive to look for these cases, and who can guarantee that some of these violations have not been trumped up to get the reward? Even if we assume that all of the stringers were perfectly honest, this dubious practice, plus U.S. media hysteria, including the Fox News footage of the most violent Greek riots presented as taking place in Russia, are strong indicators that a few hot heads would love to see something resembling a color revolution or “Arab spring” in Moscow.

Do we need that, and is it in the interests of the United States?

If the highly questionable results of the previous color revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and the Middle East are anything to go by, they did little to benefit America and the West. Georgia almost got us in a war with Russia, and still keeps trying to do that (bravo to Senator Rand Paul who stopped his colleague Marco Rubio from sneaking Georgia into NATO through the back door). Ukraine is in a terrible mess largely created by the Orange leaders; Kyrgyzstan keeps threatening to have the U.S. military base in Manas removed; and Arab revolutions brought radical Islamists to power.

God forbid a color revolution should erupt in Russia! It will have a disastrous effect not only on the Russian people, but to a large degree on the United States as well. The most optimistic outcome of this revolution will be a communist takeover, and if worse comes to worst, we’ll get a so called red-brown coalition of communists and nationalists. Is this what we want? One can criticize Putin non-stop around the clock, but let us face it: he was the man who extended a hand to America after September 11, but was pretty unwisely rebuffed by George Bush.

Presently, Russia is playing a key role for the U.S. military by providing safe supply routes for the American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. This role has now become essential in view of the full blockade by Pakistan, America’s supposed ally. Without Russian cooperation, the West will not be able to stop Iran from going ahead with its nuclear weapons program and, most importantly, U.S. efforts to keep China’s growing economic and military potential in check will come to naught if Russia and China join forces. And they certainly will if the color revolutionists have their way.

Andrei P. Tsygankov, Professor, International Relations/Political Science, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA

A 27 percent exit poll result for United Russia seems like an exaggeration from the other side. Grigory Yavlinsky even claimed that Yabloko won the elections. Moscow liberals love to speak on behalf of the whole country, even though the capital is not the whole of Russia. It would take a Soviet-like administrative machine to falsify elections for more than 20 percent. Russian liberals may need to elect a different population to have their dreams come true.

That said, there is no question that Russia is changing. People are increasingly dissatisfied with the accomplishments of the Putin era, which include state consolidation, economic recovery, the end of the war in Chechnya and revival of Russia’s international status. The system proved unable to deliver what many now expect – a greater openness, the rule of law, and a renewed economic confidence. Indeed, the protesters don’t merely challenge the results of the elections; they condemn the system itself and its new stage of stagnation.

Does it mean that Russia is replicating the Middle East transformations? And, if so, is Russia headed toward an Egypt-like peaceful uprising or a Lybia-style military confrontation? The answer very much depends on the Russian authorities and their actions. While Medvedev doesn’t have a strong network of social supporters, Putin retains support of the middle part of Russia, ethnic autonomies, and a good part of the army, police, and security services. However, he faces a difficult balancing act and must tread carefully to alleviate growing political pressures and preserve social peace.

It is important to understand that the increasingly dissatisfied middle class is only one source of these pressures. The city-based middle class is an engine of change – from perestroika to the colored revolutions and the “Arab Spring” – yet it rarely carries out its actions entirely on its own. Powerful elites frequently find a way to exploit middle class movements for their interests, as it was with the nomenklatura revolution that ended the Soviet Union, or Islamists that are taking advantage of the changes in the Middle East.

For preventing further destabilization, it is necessary to order the investigation of notorious cases of electoral fraud and mobilize mass supporters of orderly, rather than revolutionary, change. It is also important to engage with powerful business elites that may be behind the protesters. Giving stakes to dissatisfied elites and the middle class, while preserving control and isolating the revolutionaries, may become the ultimate test of Putin’s political skills. If he fails this test, as Mikhail Gorbachev and Hosni Mubarak did, the electoral revolution may become a prelude to a prolonged politicization with unpredictable consequences for Russia and for Putin himself.

Professor Nicolai N. Petro, Department of Political Science, Washburn Hall, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI

I am afraid that I have to disagree with the conventional wisdom. Nationwide exit polls by the Foundation for Public Opinion and VTsIOM, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor and CBS News, were very close to the final results. Such a close correspondence is typically seen as conclusive evidence for the reliability of the overall vote tally, just as the discrepancy between the two was taken as evidence of fraud in Ukraine in 2004.

The incomplete tallies in Moscow, and reporting errors in Rostov, where the tableaus put up on television on one channel briefly showed results that added up to 146 percent, are understandably favored by conspiracy theorists, but are probably best explained by human error. Extrapolating the same results nationwide, or even Moscow-wide, would require attributing such a high degree of organizational finesse to United Russia that one would think it could have come up with a better result.

As for the “evidence” posted on YouTube, in the vast majority of videos it is hard to tell what exactly is being shown. Certainly nothing that might meet the standard of legal evidence seems to have been caught on camera, except perhaps for some post factum statements by electoral observers that behavior at this or that polling stations struck them as suspicious.

I certainly hope that those with real grievances will file them in the courts, which in the past have proven quite willing to overturn the results when evidence of corrupt practices has been presented. For now such evidence seems remarkably slim. The major opposition parties all say they are still gathering evidence, but none have indicated whether or not they will file suits.

How then can one explain these unsurprising results? First, like all “catch-all” parties, United Russia has a broader base than parties that appeal to a narrow segment of the electorate. For this very reason, however, it is also more prone to defections and “protest voting.”

Parties of this type, like the UMP in France, do much better during times of crisis, when the party can make national unity its rallying cry. But Russia has handled the economic crisis of 2009 with exceptional skill and emerged with a budget surplus this year. That means more money for social programs and investment projects. United Russia is thus a victim of its own success. As the most pressing issues of salary and jobs recede, people are more willing to upset the status quo, ever so slightly, to have their less pressing concerns raised in the parliament.

What are these concerns? Oddly enough, they involve the never-ending carousel of reforms: pensions, military, police, courts, even the political system—in sum, all of United Russia’s much publicized “modernization” agenda. People are tired of being told that they need to keep moving, like lemmings, toward some unspecified and unattainable goal. Leading the rebellion is the rising middle class, which worries that modernization will cost them more than it will benefit them. In sum, this is a conservative protest vote. The social agenda of the left won, while the competitive agenda of liberals, a group which happens to include Medvedev and United Russia, lost.

How will this affect the March vote for president of Russia? I happen to believe that the Russian electorate is very perceptive when it comes to identifying who will actually defend its interests. As a result, if Putin makes his electoral campaign about defending the gains that the less fortunate have made over the past decade, I suspect that he will have a relatively easy time being reelected.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington, DC

"A too forward retention of custom is itself a turbulent thing," Francis Bacon once said. Putin spoke years ago of managing the system "manually," until a time came which was fit for transfer to automatic democratic mechanisms. His timeframe has kept growing longer. It turns out the time has passed him by. The system has been held over too far forward. It is itself becoming a source of turbulence.

A smooth gradual transition will be more difficult now. But more delays will only make the ride still bumpier. And riskier.

The current decay of stability vindicates the moderate wing of Putinists, who have said that the Putin stabilization system made sense only as a transitional phase, and needs to recognize that it has already served its purpose and move toward a re-democratization on the basis of the stabilization.

The instability of the Yeltsin era was always overstated; the actual Putin stabilization was based on more fundamental stabilizations accomplished in the Yeltsin years, when the main risks of Russia's disintegration were already overcome. A satisfactory stability on the main points was a settled achievement by 2001. By 2002 to 2003, the failure to begin an enhancement of the democratic legitimizing element in the system – and the deepening of the authoritarian element instead – was already becoming a destabilizing factor.

An “Arab Spring” is impossible in Moscow, because most Russians are not Arabs or Muslims. An “Orange Evolution” is an entirely different matter. It is what the regime needs for re-stabilization.

Dick Krickus, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC

Historians will no doubt cite December 10, 2011 as a pivotal point in modern Russian history; it is the day when real politics began to appear in a society that has suffered under the jack-boot of autocracy for centuries. By now, details pertaining to the massive 40,000-plus turnout of mostly middle-class Russians in Moscow and smaller gatherings in St. Petersburg and other cities have been digested by even casual followers of Russian affairs. Going forward, the big question is “what will happen next?” Specifically, how will the emboldened reformers build a movement that has a network of leaders and activists capable of maintaining its momentum and consolidating and expanding upon it membership?

Toward this end, a number of observations leap to mind in conducting a top-down, bottom-up strategy that will be energized by next March’s presidential election. Firstly, is it necessary to create a narrative that has detailed programs and broad appeal. The people who have taken to the streets must develop a storyline that provides potential supporters with concrete policy options that address public grievances. Secularists in Egypt have noted that they did not do as well as their reactionary, sectarian opponents in recent elections because they did not provide the voters with a well-articulated program for change. In Russia’s case that means a message or a story-line that shows potential supporters what next steps are required to reach the goal they all desire – a modern pluralistic Russia that addresses the needs of everyone.

Secondly, the movement should be consolidated through a series of actions. In the near term, actions must be taken that focus upon the activists that already have taken to the streets and like-minded people who fit their demographics: patriotic educated young people and older members of society who have obtained middle class status. Also likeminded individuals who heretofore have remained on the sidelines, but have been inspired by December 10 and emboldened by the Kremlin’s shaky reaction to it, must be courted as well. Among this group are members of the governing regime that are having second thoughts about the wisdom of clinging to the status quo.

To reach out to a wider audience, the movement must continue to use whatever media outlets are available to them, such as the Internet and other hi-tech implements, but they also must exploit more traditional means of communication to attract older and less privileged members of society – the kind of folks that the elite in Moscow and other big cities do not interact with on a customary basis.

Thirdly, a network of leaders and grass roots activists should be developed. In keeping with the profile of mass movements, leaders emerge as events unfold, but at some point a formal chain of command must be established along an organizational framework. The March presidential election provides a concrete goal that can energize the movement and help it obtain these objectives. What’s more, in backing a candidate, the movement may thrust forward a collection of leaders – not necessarily the candidate of their choice, but individuals who have demonstrated by their actions that they have leadership qualities – and create a nationwide organizational framework that will endure after the election is over.

Lastly, it is essential to reach out to the provinces. One of the major failings of progressive parties in Europe and the United States has been their failure to attract ordinary working people who, unlike the educated elite, have been victims of globalization and are profoundly concerned about their economic welfare. Living in geographical and psychological “gated communities,” the movement activists rarely interact with fellow citizens that do not have a university degree or enjoy the advantages that the privileged middle class takes for granted. That means the activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg must reach out to common folk that reside in the vast Russian hinterland who are disgruntled but powerless. Access to these people is possible through community leaders in provincial cities who have been fighting corrupt local authorities and grasping oligarchs on their own. Their communities could win many of these confrontations if they had access to modest funding and organizational and legal assistance available in Russia’s major urban centers. These provincial leaders know how to communicate with the people with whom they live and work, and they should not be ignored.

Skeptics rightly point out that the road ahead will be difficult and the movement will be confronted with internal and external challenges to its integrity. It will not achieve all of its near term objectives, like compelling the Kremlin to scrap the election results and provide for a new one. Also, while the Putin-Medvedev tandem has thrown under the bus associates like Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov, they also have indicated that they may resort to old tried and true tactics of intimidation. Note Putin’s recent TV question and answer session, where he characterized the protestors as people “who have Russian passports but who act in the interests of different states and are funded with foreign money.” These words are hardly new ones, but are ominous at a time when it would appear that more conciliatory rhetoric is in order.

Finally, will the Kremlin allow a real presidential opponent to challenge Putin? Those among the ruling elite that say “no” must accept the fact that this time, a new aroused populace representing the best and brightest will not quietly fade into the background, but demand a free and fair election (among other things, they may sponsor a series of debates that allows all major presidential candidates the opportunity to present their views to the public). They have tasted their power and have attracted to their cause individuals who enjoy privileged positions in Russian society, in commercial and cultural affairs and even in the government. Thus far, the protesters have been peaceful and have demonstrated that they are prepared to work toward gradual but real change in Russian politics. They are practical, patriotic people who ultimately will determine the fate of Russia. To deny them any hope of creating a Russian political system that approaches that of a normal European polity is to give license to people who may have a different, less peaceful agenda. In sum, those individuals who occupy dark corners of Russian society and who have no affiliation with foreigners in any form but are unaccustomed to resolve disputes peacefully.

Anthony T. Salvia, Special Advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Reagan Administration, Washington, DC

I served as an official observer to the State Duma elections on December 4. Everything I saw at the ten polling stations I visited in Yekaterinburg was above board, and actually quite impressive. I refer to the technology used, the plethora of observers from the main political parties and foreign countries on hand everywhere, the scrupulousness with which the vote was counted, the evident pride so many took in exercising the important civic function of voting. I was moved when a poll worker announced to the crowd at the polling station, "We have a first-time voter," and the entire throng broke into applause. The voter, who had just turned 18, smiled broadly and rather sheepishly. It was one of those charming, spontaneous, humanly affecting moments Russian life abounds in.

Of course I cannot vouch for what I did not see. In Siberian Yekaterinburg, I was far from the scene where much of the alleged vote fraud is said to have taken place. So far, I have not seen any reports that would indicate that fraud took place on such a scale as to significantly alter the results.

Based on all available evidence, on December 4, for the first time in Russian history, a ruling party was rebuked at the polls, effectively losing the election. A significant loss of support for United Russia was entirely predictable; nevertheless, the government allowed a largely free (though clearly imperfect) process to proceed. When it takes office, the new State Duma will approximate to the real shape of public opinion, and will serve as a legitimate forum for debate and political action.

United Russia could have done what our Democrats did in 1960 when they stole the presidential election outright. To its credit, it did not. Or, it could have reported a result of 50.2 percent, as opposed to 49.7 percent, and retained its absolute majority. Who would have contradicted it, and on what basis?

As Moscow-based financier Eric Kraus has observed, Putin is about as neo-Soviet as he is Hindu. Though not without flaws, he has served Russia well, not least by sticking up for the national interest. He has thwarted Washington's efforts to isolate and encircle the nation by blocking its schemes in Ukraine and the Caucasus, and by building the North Sea pipeline from Russia to Germany, bypassing Poland.

When he was president from 2000 to 2008, as Kraus points out, the Russian economy grew by an average of 7.5 percent per year (even now, amidst economic recession throughout the West, Russia is growing at the enviable rate of four percent per year). In the same time period, Russia achieved foreign exchange reserves of $600 billion, a 15-fold increase in pensions, sharply decreased poverty, demographic stabilization, unprecedented political stability and the world's best performing debt and equity markets. Upon assuming the presidency, Putin moved swiftly to liquidate the nation's sovereign debt, and build up its gold reserves, prescient policies that have already helped the country to avoid the worst of the turbulence rocking the world economy.

The main failing of Putin in power has been crafting a system that responds to the real needs and concerns of society – coming to grips with corruption in the educational system, the militia and traffic police, controlling the cost of utilities, improving Moscow traffic, etc. Although many of the people who demonstrated against Putin last Saturday in Moscow were communists and Russian nationalists (who also have a right to be heard), many were members of the urban middle class that has grown markedly over the past 12 years, in no small measure because of Putin's policy leadership.

The ideal outcome of the present state of affairs would be for more popular participation in domestic policy through newly transparent and open political institutions, while the Russian president retains control of foreign policy and national security affairs. What Russia should not do is to listen to Hillary Clinton, who aims to impose her brand of secular materialist ideology (styled "progressive") on a nation still reeling from 70 years of communism, and to reduce Russia to the status of a nominally independent satellite.

Greater political transparency is called for, but then so is Putin (still).

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

The results of the Duma elections and the claims of vote fraud are a wake-up call for the ruling party in Russia. The primary beneficiaries of United Russia’s electoral decline are the communists, and this should worry all who favor the development of democracy in Russia.

It is not clear whether systematic and non-partisan demographic analyses of voter turnout were done on election day, so we cannot yet determine with clarity and precision whether the losses by United Russia were due to no-shows from what is that party’s electoral base, or whether a genuine shift in preferences is evident. Electorates are notoriously fickle – the darling (or the bogeyman) of the voters on any given voting day may (and has) become the opposite one month later. Those in the opposition in Russia who are demanding a re-vote of the Duma elections should be mindful that a second visit to the polls might actually cancel their current gains – even in the most honest circumstances. Such is the nature of democracy.

Peaceful rallies for honest elections are a healthy exercise. It is commendable that the authorities are exercising the obligatory correctness regarding peaceful political expression. Given the motley character of the core participants (monarchists, skinheads, national-bolsheviks, anarchists jointly with pro-Western liberals) there is a concern about the direction in which these meetings will evolve. There appears a tendency by some of the more prominent participants to “highjack” the assembly in directions that these individuals prefer, but crowds of people are inherently unstable and may disperse as easily as they assembled, if the participants disagree with being channeled in any specific direction.

One should also remember that Russia is still very much in transition from 70 years of single party rule with a totalitarian ideology to a modern civil society. It will take two or three generations (meaning decades of time) of peaceful political and social progress to undo the damages done to the Russian body politic in the 20th century.

Those who imagine that the protests against vote rigging are a germinating “Arab Spring” in Russia do not seem to clearly understand the nature of the “Arab Spring” (which, by the way, now spans several seasons and will result in the ascendancy of religious fundamentalism and social regression in the affected Arab countries. Libya and Syria are in effect teetering on the edge of civil war). The sources of the “Arab Spring” are very specific to the structure and dynamics of Arab societies; these upheavals are a derivation of a wave of resurgent Islamic radicalism. The circumstances and political dynamics in Russia are very different.
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