If the old maxim has it that the only lesson of history is that no one learns from it, dictators must be particularly slow learners. Despite the definitive record of recent history—from Nicolae Ceausescu to Slobodan Milosevic—that attempts to suppress public discontent with brute force only hasten a regime’s collapse, authoritarian leaders still try to repress the opposition away, inevitably with the same results. Ukraine’s hapless president, Viktor Yanukovych, is just the latest example.
It seems that Vladimir Putin wants to be next. At least this seems to be the course he is taking, having drawn exactly the wrong lessons from Ukraine’s latest revolution. With Russia’s educated urban middle-classes, the backbone of the 2011-2012 street protests—a warning sign to Putin’s Kremlin if ever there was one—increasingly alienated from a backward, corrupt, and repressive regime, a wise course of action would have been to meet some of the opposition’s demands (such as holding free elections and releasing political prisoners) and allow for a gradual political transition.
Instead, the Kremlin is choosing the route of crackdown. Earlier this week, a Moscow court handed harsh prison sentences (ranging from two to four years) to a group of opposition activists whose only “crime” was to rally against Putin’s inauguration. A peaceful street demonstration in downtown Moscow in protest at this verdict was brutally broken up by the OMON special police forces, with hundreds of people arrested and taken to police stations. Several opposition leaders, including Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, were sentenced to administrative jail terms for literally nothing (they were standing on Tverskaya Street talking to other protesters). Nemtsov, a member of the Yaroslavl regional parliament, has been jailed for ten days in direct violation of a Russian federal law that limits the ability to arrest elected lawmakers. Meanwhile, the Kremlin-controlled Moscow legislature is discussing a total ban on street rallies in the center of the Russian capital.
The message from Putin is clear: he will not allow a Ukrainian-style popular uprising to take place in Russia. It is not, however, up to him to “allow” or “disallow” one. Just as in Ukraine by the end of Yanukovych’s rule, public discontent with state corruption and authoritarianism is genuine—and growing. According to a recent Levada Center poll, only 22 percent of Russians want Putin to remain president after the end of his current term—and this with nearly total government control over the national media. Increased repression will only turn public opinion further away from the regime. If Vladimir Putin wants to see a Maidan on the streets of Moscow, he is on the right track.