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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Arab Spring, Russian winter?

People protesting alleged vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections hold signs reading "Give back the elections, rascals" in Triumphal Square in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011.Photo: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev

In a dramatic turn, Russia’s parliamentary elections this past weekend dealt Vladimir Putin’s ruling party a rather shocking blow: Despite widespread allegations of fraud, United Russia failed to get a constitutional majority. In the Duma, Russia’s legislative body, this means Putin can no longer rubber stamp major changes to Russian law.

The allegations of fraud remain murky. One blogger noted that several polls conducted before Sunday’s vote indicated that Putins’ United Russia party would garner about 55 percent of the vote. United Russia got just over 50 percent, which raises the question: Just how fraudulent was the vote, if it matched the polling?

But in the interim, protests have broken out in several Russian cities, prompting the deployment of troops to quell the protesters. At a metro stop in Moscow, protesters shouted “[Vladimir] Putin is a thief!” Elsewhere, the protesters and police clashed violently.

The public anger is being directed not just at the government writ large but at Putin specifically. This is the inevitable result of his personalizing Russian politics, though Putin is hardly alone in that sense. Many Russians still blame Gorbachev for the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, even though the USSR’s economy was hollowed out and broken long before he took power.

Still, Putin had adopted a very particular brand of personal politics, where he was widely considered an unofficial co-ruler with President Dmitri Medvedev. He brazenly interfered in Russia’s politics and civil society to impose more order on a country many citizens worried had become irretrievably chaotic. And for a while, Putin’s authoritarianism – soft enough not to spark international outrage – seemed like a success.

But in recent years, Putinism has started to feel increasingly more hollow. The Russian economy, which once seemed so robust, has started to show signs of distress. And the lagging economic growth seems to have sparked some discontent among citizens. Then there’s the corruption: A recent survey named Russia as one of the most corrupt countries on earth.

However, it is a mistake to assume, as many pundits seem to, that the current unrest over the Duma elections is the result of the Russian government’s harassment of pro-Western groups. The discontent, so the argument goes, stems from Russia’s desire to be freer and less authoritarian. But if that were the case, then the pro-west, anti-authoritarian parties would have performed better.

Instead, the party that gained the most from this election – the Communist Party (which campaigned using images of Josef Stalin), isn’t really set to improve things much. The next two largest parties, the socialist-leaning A Just Russia Party, and the social-liberal Yabloko party, remain so marginal that they can’t really affect proceedings. (The Just Russia party was allegedly aided by the government to sometimes provide soft opposition to Putin’s United Russia).

While the full extent of the reactions to the protests across Russia has yet to be determined, it’s heartening to see thousands of people marching in the streets over a political issue. But the mere presence of opposition is not necessarily a good thing. Russian nationalists, for example, have grown increasingly uncomfortable with Putin. Putin tends to take a more expansive view of Russian-ness (“Rossiiski”) than the more ethnically charged purism of the nationalists (“Russki”). An expansive view of Russian citizenship might fit the realities of modern day Russia, like this Radio Free Europe profile of a young Kyrgyz girl growing up in Moscow. But, according to a survey conducted earlier this year, 58 percent of Russians agreed with the motto “Russia is for Russians.” So, it appears that Putin could be well out of step with the public on this score.

Still, it’s not like Putin and Medvedev are renegade reformers. Alex Navalny, an electrifying figure in Russian politics, was just arrested for “obstructing traffic” while leading an anti-Putin protest and sentenced to fifteen days in jail. The official crackdown on the burgeoning protest movement is not as harsh as it was under the Soviet Union, but the messages the Medvedev/Putin government is sending are just as crystal clear.

So is Russia experiencing an Arab Spring, only in the Russian winter? It is way too early to tell. In Egypt and even Libya, revolutionary movements are being coopted by Islamists, and no one knows yet if those revolutions will wind up being net-gains for their respective countries. Protest movements in Russia are too nascent – are a few thousand Muscovite protesters that big a deal in a city of 10 million? – to draw grand conclusions at the present time.

However, we know from experience that these movements can appear weak and scattered and then rapidly snowball into something enormous and life-changing. We also know that outsiders, even outsiders living locally and reporting on events in real time, can have a limited understanding of the broad social currents that inspire mass uprisings against a government, and even less about how they’ll turn out. There would be something enormous behind the protests, or it could just be a media spectacle. After all, it’s not like Russia has never arrested dozens of activists at an opposition march before (or even on a regular basis).

Russian protests follow a fairly predictable pattern, and so far we haven’t seen much that hasn’t happened before. Despite the harassment meted out to opposition figures at these anti-government rallies over the last few years, the Russian public has remained remarkably complacent. Traditional Russian fatalism could inspire more shrugging and hand waving than outrage this time around. Or it could reach a tipping point and inspire a total collapse of the ruling government.

Either way, Russia is going to be incredibly interesting to watch over the next several months, as the country gears up for a presidential election that will feature none other than Vladimir Putin on the ballot. At the very least, we can say it will be riveting.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist at TheAtlantic.com.