Russia: Reform Without Revolution?

Russia: Reform Without Revolution?

Analysts of Russian politics have always faced a conundrum when assessing developments like December's mass protests in Moscow. Russia has a history of authoritarianism and cultural fatalism that has always discouraged reform. From Peter the Great to Leonid Brezhnev, Russian rulers have shown a near-endless capacity for tricking, co-opting or simply suppressing pro-reform movements. For centuries, developments that in any other nondemocratic regime would signal imminent and inevitable change have routinely failed to breach the Kremlin walls. But in the few historical instances where change has occurred, it has traditionally been rapid and unpredictable. The Bolsheviks took power just months after the fall of Nicolas II in 1917 and lost it in 1991 just as quickly. In both instances, almost no one saw it coming. Hence in assessing the Moscow protests, Russianists are caught in a quandary: treat them as an interesting but meaningless sideshow, or throw caution to the wind and declare that the revolution has begun. The truth may be something in between.

It is important to note that Vladimir Putin and his regime are for the moment in no danger of collapse. While the protesters have managed to mobilize impressive numbers, they are still vastly outnumbered by the majority of Russians who by and large still support, or at least accept, the status quo. More importantly, the various factions of the Russian elite remain more or less united behind him. There is little chance of new parliamentary elections -- a key demand of the protesters -- and even less that Putin will fail to win re-election in March.

But the protest movements do present a credible challenge. First, though Putin's supporters may outnumber the opposition, they are ultimately passive and difficult to mobilize. They are more resigned to Putin than supportive of him. Second, there is evidence that elite defections have begun. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill I used his Christmas address on Jan. 7 (Orthodox Christmas) to warn the authorities that they must “adjust course” in the face of the protests. The Church has traditionally been a strong ally of Putin, and Kirill’s remarks, coupled with harsher ones by his subordinates, is sure to be a source of worry to the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Alexei Kudrin, until recently the finance minister and a member of Putin's inner circle for the better part of a decade, has openly sided with the protesters, appearing at a public rally on Dec. 24 and echoing their calls for new elections.

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