On Monday thousands of people vented their anger on a Moscow boulevard, chanting “Russia without Putin!” “Revolution!” and “Shame!” after an election that, even though it was rigged in favour of the Kremlin-backed party, United Russia, delivered an electoral slap in the face for Vladimir Putin.
It was the biggest liberal opposition rally in years, and the police let it go ahead, although it did end in mass arrests. On the face of it, Putin’s Russia shares some of the ingredients of Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt: a disenfranchised but educated youth, an oppositional internet and social media, a corrupt state run as a kleptocracy by a small elite, and the impossibilty of real political change. So was the Duma election a tipping point, one of those moments where a repressed political opposition comes out onto the streets and stays there?
The short answer is no. Judging the true electoral weight of opposition parties that are banned from running for election, such as Boris Nemtsov’s the Party of People’s Freedom, or Parnas, is a mug’s game. First, liberal parties are notoriously prone to splits; and second, they are just not that popular. The best of them, Yabloko got just 3.3%. Right Cause, the party that emerged from the ashes of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), finished last in the Duma race with just 0.6%. These parties are not a Muslim Brotherhood-in-waiting.
Putin also has political options. He can start the process of distancing himself from United Russia – the party he himself created. He could take back the promise he made to make Dmitry Medvedev, prime minister, and blame the party’s unpopularity on him. He could separate his personal popularity from the system he created: although the polls show that both are sinking, Putin still enjoys personal ratings as a leader of around 60%, which any western politician would die for. Finally he could accept that the result was an implicit rebuke, and allow more political pluralism into parliament and regional government. The target of popular wrath is not the Kremlin, but the people they appoint.
There are also other potential conductors of the oppositional mood. One of them is Sergei Mironov, a former speaker of the Federation Council who was sacked by United Russia in April. His party, A Just Russia, nearly doubled its representation in the Duma, from 38 to 64 seats. If any party, other than the communists, picked up the protest left-of-centre vote, it was his. And it did so on a platform with which many would agree: dissolving the monopoly of United Russia, and ending the immunity of prosecution of Duma deputies: making the Duma, in other words, a real parliament.
But there are deeper reasons why democratic change in Russia could yet take time to emerge. Vladimir Rzyhkov, an economics professor and a former liberal MP, who was banned from registering and running for election as an independent, remains pessimistic about the possibility of democratic change.
According to him 85% of Russians are not involved in any association of any kind, political, social, religious or any other. There is near-complete passivity. The issues that get people going are generally off the main political agenda. Some are connected to driving, like the campaign to stop the elite putting blue flashing lights on their car and driving fast down the centre lane to avoid the jams. Other hotbutton issues are environmental like the campaign that accompanied the building of a road from Moscow to St Petersburg through a forest.
What does he put this passivity down to? Communism, which destroyed Russian faith in each other, and consumerism which does roughly the same: “If there were a democratic force out there, it would already have made itself felt.”
The second factor is even more depressing than the first: the elite are thinking ahead to their retirement and lining their children up for their positions. One way or another, it could be a while before Putin faces a political opponent he has to take seriously.