Arab Spring, Russian Winter

December 16, 2011

This has been a bad year for dictators, starting with the Arab Spring and ending now with the Russian Winter. If you are one of the autocrats who survived the annus horribilis of 2011, here are three lessons, drawn from some smart Russians and Russia-watchers, of what the unexpected Slavic protests this month could mean.

The first is that authoritarian regimes don’t run on autopilot. To survive, particularly in the age of the Internet, jet travel and global capital flows, dictatorships need to be savvy and effective. We often attribute the success of democratic revolutions to their brave leaders or the spirit of the times, but, as Lucan Way, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, argues, “authoritarian incompetence” can be an equally powerful driver.

That is certainly the case in Russia, where one reason United Russia, the party of power led by Vladimir V. Putin, did so poorly in elections this month is the simple fact that the regime made a lot of political mistakes.

“The ineffectiveness and stupid actions of the authorities have accelerated the process,” Grigory Chkhartishvili, the best-selling Moscow author who writes under the pen name Boris Akunin, explained in an e-mail. He recalled asking Yegor Gaidar, the late architect of Russian economic changes, “when does he expect society to awaken. Around 2015, he answered, if they, meaning Putin and his entourage, do not make too many mistakes. Well, they have made too many mistakes.”

Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg, made a similar point this week. Gelman argued that the Kremlin’s wobble in December was an own-goal, or, as he put it, “a blow delivered with its own hands.”

The biggest mistake, in Gelman’s view, was “the attempt to mask Russian authoritarianism with a liberal facade.” That turns out to have been an error partly because “part of the political class and concerned members of civil society actually believed in the liberalization of the regime.”

But the bigger problem was that Russia’s authoritarian leaders became so infatuated with their political Potemkin village they neglected some of the coercive basics: focused as they were on the carrot, the authorities didn’t pay enough attention to the stick. Gelman contrasts this political season, when the government’s attitude before the election was “peaceful,” with the 2007-8 political cycle, when the opposition was repressed in advance and the state’s political machinery was fully engaged.

The standout example of authoritarian competence, by contrast, is China, whose rulers have continued to focus relentlessly on doing whatever it takes to stay in power. That determination was in evidence after the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union, which prompted a thoughtful and concerted effort to tighten government control, as did the uprisings in the Arab world this year.

The second lesson of the Russian protests is one that will be particularly worrying for China. It is that economic success does not guarantee political success. This equation is mystifying in Western democracies — where people tend to believe that “it’s the economy, stupid,” and usually they’re right.

That’s why the International Monetary Fund, which focused on Egypt’s healthy gross domestic product numbers, was wrong-footed by the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo. And it is why the demonstrations in Russia perplexed many foreign observers, who noted that many of their participants were well-heeled members of a middle class that prospered in the Putin era.

A partial explanation of this puzzle is that, as in Tunisia and Egypt, middle-class citizens in a dictatorship can be moved to protest by their souls, not just their pocketbooks. The refrain during the Arab Spring was that the protests were about dignity. As for Russia, Chkhartishvili put it another way: “This is not about bread, this is about cleanliness. It’s not political, it’s hygienic.”

Research by Carol Graham and Stefano Pettinato suggests another reason why a prospering society might still be a rebellious one. In work that initially focused on Russia and Peru, the two identified a group they described as “frustrated achievers,” people who had become both richer and less happy.

“Frustrated achievers are people who are just out of poverty or the lower middle class,” Graham, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. “They are people who have made relatively large gains, but they report being very frustrated.”

A source of that frustration, Graham said, was when “the gains around them are much bigger than their own, and bigger than they can ever achieve in their lifetime.” Post-Soviet Russia, with its oligarchs, crony capitalism and corruption, is a petri dish for frustrated achievers.

The third lesson of the Russian Winter is one it has in common with the Arab Spring. One consequence of the rise of social media is the emergence of what Way calls “leaderless protests.”

“In Russia, as in the Arab world, protests started largely spontaneously without the participation or instigation of the major opposition groupings,” Way said in an e-mail. “Instead, they were inspired by actors who came out of nowhere and lacked virtually any kind of organizational backing.”

But this new world is also hard to manage for the would-be revolutionaries. Twitter and Facebook may make it easy to get those frustrated achievers onto the streets. But the really hard work always starts the day after the revolution, and if you didn’t need to build a protest movement in the first place, you may soon lose power to the people who did.


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As user of russian-speaking internet i must concur that there protests were spontaneous – for almost a year quantity of both right- and left- wing astroturfers was off the scale. Of course it was their only chance – as no matter was election rigged or not, pro-western “liberals” (mostly with “ex-” in their resumes) failed spectacularly. And if anybody think that any sane country will allow hitler-wannabees to participate in elections..well, the only next step is to say that human sacrifices is protected under “freedom of religion”.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Good article, unbiased and right to the point. The thing is the main moving power of these demonstrations in Russia is not underpreviliged and underpaid group of people who overthrown tzar in 1917 and communism in 1989, but educated and well paid middle class who wants political reformes. From the very beginning it was clear that no revolution at least yet in Russia was possible, these people has much more to loose than those who did the previous Russian revolutions. As Pushkin said it ‘Russian revolt is senseless and merciless’. No one in his own mind wants to see it here.
But the message is sent – Russia needs the reforms, political, economical, social. Without them those who have power now are doomed, people can get desperate. I hope this message is understood.

Posted by max_x | Report as abusive

One doesn’t normally associate the phrase “frustrated achiever” with those who vote for the CPRF!

I think it is the economy, it’s just a different economy and different people. To get where Russia is now from where it was after the default is an achievement, and we ought not forget that. But these days it doesn’t seem to be going much further. Russians travel abroad, and are able to compare their lives with those of others. A friend studying for an MSc at Edinburgh complained to me about student fees: “Finland doesn’t have any natural resources and doesn’t manufacture anything, but the Finnish students get all their fees paid. We have all that gas and oil and I have to pay everything myself.”

Perhaps, the economy has improved to the point where the drag of corruption on the economy has become all too obvious, yet all the voters get are vague promises to tackle the problem Real Soon Now.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Excellent summary. Question is, what does the future hold? If Putin is as savvy as he is made out to be, we should expect that en route to his re-re-election he will: (1) use widespread elite and general public dissatisfaction to clean house among the middle apparatchiki; (2) as a result of #1, sow great uncertainty and fear among the ruling class, stoking greater loyalty and more effective action next March; (3) heighten regime rhetoric about enemies within Russia and without – we are already seeing this about the U.S., in the “recess” from the “reset,” expect to also hear more talk about how Putin is the only bulwark against a communist revanche, against anarchy.

Posted by russianlifemag | Report as abusive

good point, if history is any guide, no sane country will allow hitler-wannabees to participate in the election when Stalin already runs the country. in fact, there won’t be any elections at all because nowhere it says that people should have a choice.

Posted by petrengeneer | Report as abusive

“Frustrated achievers are people who are just out of poverty or the lower middle class, …. They have made relatively large gains, ….. the gains around them are much bigger than their own, and bigger than they can ever achieve in their lifetime.”

A problem for Russia. China. But surely this problem is bigger in the west than elsewhere?

Shouldn’t you warn you friends in the global elite?

BTW, China need not be so worried. This sort of protest is much more common in a cociety that had a pervasive feeling of decline. Everyone in China knows they are on the up. They want a part of it. In Egypt, Tunisia, Europe, Russia and the US, we all know the place is falling apart.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

Or, as some living in Moscow have suggested, the protests were largely orchistrated by Putin in order to demonstrate 1) the publics ability to protest unhindered, 2) the media’s ability to report the event freely and uncensored, and 3) the government’s ability to maitain restraint when confronted by the people.

It seems unlikely to me that even the Putin administration could organize 30,000 protestors. Though, it would have been a convienient way to take a more aggressive wind out of more earnest protestors sails.

Posted by mcarney | Report as abusive

Sorry but there is no Russian Winter. There are some protests in moscow and Saint Petersburg. I sympathize with teh protesters very much, but there is nothing in connom between the protests in the arab countries and russia. There has been one demonstration of a decent size. just one, and tehre is not even certain how many people would come to the next one on 24th. no other city had seen major protest action. Except Saint petersburg, if you could call a 10.000 people demonstration in a 5.000.000 (!) people city a major demonstration. the other big difference between our protest and the protest in other countires is that nobody really wants revolution or immediate change. everbody wnats some reforms, or at least a new and fair election. however the new election will see United Russia get about 30-35 of votes. however the alternative are the communist who already called the proteste an orange virus. so what is the other alternative. So please stop using the Russian Winter expression. its just not true

Posted by maxim86 | Report as abusive

Chrystia, demonstrations in Russia are by ultra nationalists and ultra-communists, because the public feels the country is too open to globalization and foreigners. There is nothing pro-democratic, in fact people think the government is not authoritarian enough, Putin is not strong enough.
Same in North Africa – where do you see “spring”? The masses there want shariah and they revolt to achieve it. What freedom do you dream of? Unless you think Saudis-like regimes are the most liberal in the world.

Posted by Ananke | Report as abusive

All western people make the same mistake.

They don’t differ little islamic poor-educated and econmically poor touristic-type countries (Tunisia, Egypt) or even autarchies (closed-economy-type countries, like Libya, Syria)
from orthodox nuclear countries, like Russia.

The difference is enormous:
– mostly well-educated population
– nuclear weapon and technologies (Russia is still the only country on the Earth that could annihilate USA)
– territory and population is much more bigger than examples above
– fundamental infrastructure (may be of bad quality but we have roads, transport, power plants and so on)
– self-suffiсient farming
– christian population
– аctually no problem with basic needs
– russia is the 10th world economy (in nominal GDP)
(due to climate, large territory and the surplus of resources – lack of competitive industries, but enough for home consumption in case of force majeure)

In this case it is not the problem of frustrated achievers.
The problem is that people in Russia suffer from bureaucracy and budgets thefts.
This problem is historical – it was for centures here – from the beggining of Russian Statehood.
It is not in the russian culture to fulfil control. That is why nobody fulfil duties well.
Only personal (private) promises and deals work here.

Nowadays the bureaucracy pressure becomes too hard for the middle class (citizens of big cities with 1 mln+ population).
Officials got too much power under the common people and the common and arbitration courts are not fair.

So actually people don’t protest FOR the fair vote.
They protest AGAINST interference of bureaucracy to their private life.

Elections in december – it was just confirmation that bureaucrats became brazen and insolent above the permissible.

Nobody here in Moscow wants any revolution.
But for centuries it was a sort of a social contract between population and the authorities – do not meddle in the affairs of each other.

And now people suppose that the other side violate the contract, because bureaucrats thrust their nose too deep into everything – education system, taxes, utility payments, exit abroad, juvenile justice, traffic and so on).
December elections – it is only “casus belli” (we say in Russia “last chinese warning” ))).

Posted by fin-challenger | Report as abusive