By Jenia Ustinova
Before the December 4th, 2011 elections in Russia, no one could have imagined an anti-government rally in Moscow could attract tens of thousands of mainstream middle class students and professionals to march alongside socialists and nationalists. But the election results and the perception of fraud and irregularities spurred massive demonstrations. Those protests have brought politics back into the open after a decade in which President-elect Vladimir Putin was granted almost complete political freedom by Russians who wanted little more in return than stability and rising standards of living. Criticism of the turnout at the March 10 opposition rally (20,000 attended) underscores the dramatic shift in the Russian political context over the last three months.
It was inevitable that the turnout at the opposition rallies would decline from the estimated peak of more than 100,000 who showed up on February 4 in subfreezing temperatures. With Putin scoring a clear win in the March 4 presidential election, the protests lost momentum. After the initial outburst it's hard to maintain enthusiasm, especially when most protesters are asking for greater accountability and transparency, and less corruption. These people want an evolution not a revolution that will disrupt their lives. Like it or not, these are people who have other plans for the weekend than attending protests.
Putin's calculus on how to govern Russia for the next six years will in part assume that the opposition will once again be marginalized as protest numbers dissipate and the Kremlin adopts a divide and conquer strategy. Putin may consider some concessions on electoral reform (for the middle class), and will likely provide additional social spending (for the poor and the regions) before hoping to return to business as usual in Moscow.
But the genie is out of the bottle. The opposition will continue to challenge Putin and the regime. The rallies have already raised questions about Putin's legitimacy that will linger with the general public and with the political elite, weakening Putin. Opposition leaders meanwhile have grown stronger and can now attempt to channel their support into formal organizations and challenge system's hold on power at the local and regional levels.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin's room for maneuver has shrunk considerably. It will attempt to shore up its declining popularity with additional pension and salary hikes, but discontent is now sufficiently strong that any policy misstep or miscalculation by the authorities could spark a powerful public reaction. Any number of events from a national tragedy (such as the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk) to prolonged economic dislocation (like the recent financial crisis) could set off new protests.
Jenia Ustinova is an analyst with Eurasia Group's Russia practice.
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