This weekend, thousands of people defied the cold and the control in Moscow to show their dislike for Vladimir Putin and what Russia has become under his leadership: corrupt, energy-reliant, centralised, and uncompetitive. It is now a country that must win externally because it can't help but lose internally. ‘Post-BRIC’, as a new report has it.
My guess is that Putin will ‘win’ the presidential election, and will ensure that a sufficient number of counter-protests make it look as if he has more support than he actually has. That's exactly the kind of ‘virtual politics’ that Moscow excels at and which Ukraine expert Andrew Wilson has described so well in a book on the subject.
Once in office, Putin will either ‘do a Medvedev’ and pick people for a new administration, including the current president, which show he either understands people’s concerns; or ‘do a Rogozin’ and try to undercut the protests by moving people like former NATO ambassador Dimitri Rogozin closer to power, perhaps even making the ex-nationalist his Prime Minister.
But I don't think the Russian leader is likely to see out a full term. His ‘win’ will, even with the fraud that can be expected, be narrower than a few years ago. And the next parliamentary election will probably lead to a victory for the opposition. There is simply a limit to how many votes can be stolen and, by the time of the next election, the opposition will have overwhelming support in the country. The clash between the Duma and the President will then make the fight between Congress and the President in the United States look like child's play.
In the end, my money is on Putin being forced from power by a combination of popular pressure and parliamentary opposition. Like Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Abdullah Ali Saleh, all of whom were all-powerful, the Russian leader will probably over-reach, initially look like he will ride out the problems, but eventually suffer the indignity of a forced retirement. Like the other leaders, he too will believe — to the end and beyond — the opposition to be a foreign plot, so far removed has he now become to believe the protests can be anything else. A Russian version of the dolchstoßlegende may even emerge following his mid-term departure and could set the stage for a Putinist return. No matter what, the path to democracy in Russia will be a long one, but the protests this weekend were a milestone on that journey.