To an uninitiated observer, the Russian opposition might appear on the decline. A concerted Kremlin-led crackdown—which includes not only new laws curbing civic freedoms, but also criminal prosecutions of opposition activists and, more recently, Stalinist-style kidnappings and torture—as well as the reduced turnout at Moscow’s protest rallies (compared to the height of last December) could indeed give that impression.
But the impression would be false. And the most farsighted among the regime’s own supporters are trying their best to urge Vladimir Putin to prepare an exit strategy before it is too late.
One of them is Anatoly Chubais, the privatization czar of the 1990s and a key Putin loyalist who heads the government-owned Rusnano Corporation. In an extensive interview with a pro-Kremlin magazine, Chubais cautioned against underestimating the opposition. “Bolotnaya … was categorically not a one-time occurrence,” he said, referring to the December protests, “but the manifestation of deep-seated social shifts that had taken place in the country. … A middle class is forming in Russia. Yes, it is still a Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg middle class … but the process has begun, and it cannot be stopped. The fact that the last rally was attended not by 100,000, but by 30,000 people, does not indicate a waning … We may have ten rallies with 3,000 people, and then suddenly we will see half a million … This train does not go backward.” Emphasizing that “the demand for political change will not disappear,” Chubais urged the Kremlin to choose an evolutionary path instead of creating the conditions for a revolution.
The same implication underlies a recent study by the Center for Strategic Research (CSR), a think tank founded by Putin’s associates to write his first-term presidential agenda and currently chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak. The center is ringing the alarm bells: according to its survey of focus groups across the country, attitudes toward the regime have turned markedly more negative since spring (that is, since Putin’s “election victory”). Public perception of the ruling United Russia party, according to the CSR, is “unanimously and unreservedly negative” in all focus groups. Putin’s PR stunts—such as his dive for ancient amphorae or his flight with cranes—which once drew a mostly good-humored reaction, are viewed with increasing irritation. The slate of repressive laws is seen as an attempt to silence dissent and outlaw the freedom of speech—and is also seen negatively. As for the urban middle class, its attitude toward Putin has gone from “negative” to “hostile.”
The prospects, according to the CSR, are clear: since an electoral path for the opposition is all but closed under the current system, Russians are increasingly talking about “the possibility and the desirability of revolution” as the only way to change leadership. The center forecasts “mass civic disobedience” that could be triggered by any number of factors, including a widely projected economic crisis. In his conclusions, CSR President Mikhail Dmitriev pleads with the government to agree to a “voluntary self-renewal.”
Similar pleas were once addressed to Nicholas II, Russia’s last czar, who had a perfect opportunity in 1906 to cede executive authority to a newly elected Parliament and forestall the upheavals that would end tragically both for him and for the nation. He did not heed those calls. Neither, in all probability, will Vladimir Putin. It is, therefore, incumbent upon Russia’s opposition leaders to begin preparing for the coming protest wave to ensure a peaceful and democratic outcome.