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Twenty years later, the Soviet model still prevails in Russia

The recent opposition protests in Moscow represent the most vital test for the post-Soviet state since the rise of Putin twelve years ago.

On a cold, grey Moscow winter day exactly 20 years ago, the red hammer and sickle Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin for the last time. The Soviet Union had died. The world's second most powerful state had crumbled under the weight of a bankrupt ideology, bankrupt finances and courageous self-determination movements across Eastern Europe. The Communist behemoth, once seen as the most dangerous foe of the western world, fell with a whimper.

Citizens of the Soviet Union, accustomed to a soul-crushing repression of secret police, an authoritarian state, bare grocery shelves, international isolation and "comrade leaders" who acted more like enemies of the people, had broken free. A new dawn beckoned and for citizens of Russia - the heart of the Soviet Union - this new dawn heralded great promise.

Of course, as with all revolutions, the hope of change mingles with chaos, uncertainty and violence. Opportunists lurk and strike. The best of men are not well-suited to post-revolutionary environments. They are both too good and too weak, too unwilling (and too moral) to cut their foes with a knife, steal an industry or rig an election. Thus, the new guard that replaces the old guard tend to be men of their ilk, and they comfortably settle into the old guard's villas and state-owned industries and web of insider deals and corruption.

Post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s was a brutish, free-for-all crony capitalist state. To be sure, the revolution had certainly achieved more freedoms for ordinary Russians and more opportunities, but the common man sensed something was wrong, something was amiss amid the oligarch deals and the declining growth rates and the whiplash economy. Older Russians pined nostalgically for a mythical past.

Enter Vladimir Putin, a former KGB man of the old guard, willing to knock heads with the "new guard" elite that looked to many Russians like mere opportunists, and spinning a narrative that Russia could be "great" once again, as it was in Soviet days. Of course, there was nothing "great" about a state that had killed more than 20 million of its people in forced famines, secret prisons and gulags, dramatically underperformed its economic potential, crushed all forms of dissent, and subjugated peoples across Eastern and Central Europe through violence and intimidation.

But history did not matter. The chest-thumping nationalist on a white horse had arrived. The Russian cavalry would make Russia "great" again, and the KGB man with a taste for daredevil sports and manly displays of strength stormed through Russian politics.

The economic growth numbers were impressive. The former Communist state had become fashionable in investment circles. It made up a letter in the most famous acronym in the history of investing: the BRICs. Mr Putin seemed genuinely popular. He won elections with relative ease.

But the old KGB man never seemed comfortable with the free flow of ideas and opposition and political differences that come with a democracy. He preferred "managed democracy", one that limited candidates and muzzled opponents and silenced noisy media critics. It seemed to work through his first eight years in office, but when his mandated terms came to an end, he chose not to leave the stage. He lurked in the background as "prime minister" and now has announced another run for the presidency next year.

A sizeable number of Russians have grown weary of the Putin show and all that it entails: the "managed" media, the "managed" democracy and the "managed" economy. They are weary of the corruption: Russia stands alongside Nigeria and Uganda in the Transparency International Index of corruption - nothing "great" about that company.

And so Mr Putin faces his most critical test to date. On Saturday, some 100,000 Russians took to the streets of Moscow to protest what they deemed a rigged parliamentary election earlier this month. Mr Putin's United Russia party won nearly 50 per cent of the vote, a fall from their near two-thirds majority in the 2007 elections, but still a cause of suspicion among Russia's emerging middle class.

Mr Putin has mocked protesters in a television interview, but his President Dmitri Medvedev has called for substantive reforms to meet demands. Too late, say many protesters, and besides, it's Mr Putin with the real power.

And so a stand-off will play out across the cold Russian winter. As Washington Post writer Will Englund put it, it's a battle between "a political system in Russia carefully reconstructed by Soviet-era apparatchiks" versus a wired and Twitter'ed and Facebooked generation "that was in high school or younger when the red banner was lowered" in 1991.

It is worth remembering that the Moscow protests represent tremendous progress when compared to the dark shadow of 20th century Russian history. A little more than two decades ago, such protests would have been unthinkable. It is also worth remembering what Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin once said: "Sometimes, decades pass and nothing happens, and then suddenly weeks pass and decades happen."

In 1991, in those fateful weeks, decades happened. While the stand-off today is likely to be less dramatic, the opposition protests represent the most vital test for the post-Soviet state since the rise of Putin 12 years ago. The next few weeks and months will decide Russia's coming decades.


Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and senior adviser at Oxford Analytica

Updated: December 26, 2011 04:00 AM