On Wednesday morning, Vladimir Pekhtin, one of the most senior and longest-serving members of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in the State Duma, took to the floor to announce his resignation because of “controversial documents published on the Internet.” He did not mention Alexei Navalny by name, but it was indeed Russia’s leading anticorruption blogger who forced the Putin loyalist out of politics. Last week, Navalny published documents showing Pekhtin’s (undeclared) ownership of more than $2 million worth of luxury real estate in Miami Beach, Florida.
Pekhtin was not the only one to head for the door. Two more United Russia lawmakers—billionaire industrialist Anatoly Lomakin and agricultural landholder Vasily Tolstopyatov—have also left the Duma. Tolstopyatov featured prominently in the “Golden Pretzels” list, an exposé by opposition lawmaker Dmitri Gudkov on the illegal business dealings of Duma members (who are, by law, banned from engaging in entrepreneurial activity).
The proposal by Moscow’s Kommersant FM radio to arrange a live debate between Navalny and a representative of United Russia was publicly rejected by the ruling party. One can hardly blame them. On February 2, 2011, in an interview with a small radio station Finam FM, Navalny coined his now-famous phrase, referring to United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves.” By May 2011, 31 percent of Russians shared this view of the ruling party. The campaign against “crooks and thieves” became a leitmotif of the opposition’s efforts in the December 2011 parliamentary election. According to the official results, 50.7 percent of Russians voted against Putin’s party. The real figure, according to independent monitors, was between 60 and 70 percent.
Two years ago, the very thought of senior regime figures such as Pekhtin resigning because of online revelations by opposition bloggers would have seemed a fantasy. There is no better proof of the profound changes in Russian society that resulted from the unprecedented pro-democracy protests in 2011–2012 and the political maturing of the middle class. However strongly it may wish to, the regime is simply no longer able to ignore public opinion.
In the 1990s, Russia had functioning democratic institutions, but no civil society to speak of. Today, the situation is reversed—and that is probably the most hopeful aspect of modern-day Russia. The development of a functioning civil society is an irreversible process. Once this happens, achieving political democracy is only a matter of time.