MOSCOW – In just six months, from the end of September 2011 to March 2012, Russia was transformed. The state’s gradual decomposition – its degenerate ethos of rent-seeking and appropriation of public goods – finally pushed Russia’s citizens, especially its young post-communist middle class, into the streets. Soviet-era deference to paternalistic leaders gave way to self-confidence and distrust of established authority.
Or did it? Vladimir Putin and his regime, caught off guard by last winter’s massive protests, were on the verge of panic. But, after last month’s presidential election returned Putin to the office, the protest wave rapidly subsided. Rallies shrank to one-tenth their previous size. With expectations of immediate success unmet, the romantic impulse wilted. It was clear what to do in confronting electoral fraud; what to do later, after the defeat, was not. The protests’ leaders could formulate no new goals and slogans.
Moreover, between the parliamentary elections of last December and the presidential election in March, the authorities began to seize the initiative. Putin’s presidential placeholder, Dmitri Medvedev, proposed political reforms and started meeting with representatives of opposition parties, which also had a demobilizing effect.
The authorities no doubt perceived the decline in street activity as a victory, which they immediately sought to consolidate by using the security forces to suppress future protests. Courts hearing allegations of falsified election results generally ignored clear evidence of legal violations. To many, the protest movement had been defeated.