MOSCOW – Few people, least of all Vladimir Putin, who plans to return to Russia’s presidency on March 4, could have imagined last December that Russians would, for the first time in 20 years, wake up and rally in their tens of thousands against the government. Unlike the Arab Spring rebellions, the driving force behind the ongoing protests is not Russia’s poor and disadvantaged, but rather the country’s rising urban middle class. That is an important difference, for, historically, successful democratic transitions have almost always required a politically mobilized middle class.
Well-educated and successful, middle-class Russians have taken to the streets to gain respect from a Kremlin hierarchy that is mired in deceit and corruption. The last straw was the blatant falsification of December’s parliamentary elections, which reinforced citizens’ sense that the regime regards them with contempt. Russians are particularly outraged by Putin’s arrogant treatment of the presidency as an office that can be “loaned” to allies – like the current incumbent, Dmitri Medvedev – and reclaimed whenever he wishes.