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Russian Democracy Returns, On the Streets for Now

Legend has it that when Vladimir Kryuchkov, KGB chairman and leader of the attempted coup in August 1991, was told that pro-democracy demonstrators could not be dispersed by force because of the sheer number of people, he did not believe it and demanded to be personally driven around Moscow. It was hard for a Soviet apparatchik to comprehend citizens willing to risk a crackdown to defend their dignity.

The experience of 1991 and the “color revolutions” that swept across the former Communist bloc in the early 2000s taught KGB operatives, who now dominate Russia’s government, that peaceful resistance can overcome repression. For years, Vladimir Putin was anxious to suppress even an embryonic protest movement. Opposition rallies were routinely “banned” (a procedure alien to the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of assembly) and dispersed by police, with dozens of activists detained and beaten.

Yet the protest movement in Russia is growing. And, ironically, it is Mr. Putin who contributed most to its emergence. In the past decade, he has diligently dismantled the institutions that hold the government accountable. Elections are heavily controlled with a wide arsenal of administrative tricks, television channels are strictly censored, regional governors serve as rubber-stamps for the Kremlin. During the period of “prosperity,” with high oil revenues and generous government handouts, many Russians were willing to accept this unwritten bargain—democracy in exchange for “stability.” But with the onset of the economic crisis—with 6 million (officially) unemployed, an 8 percent (official) GDP fall, and an 11 percent (official) decline in industrial production, coupled with the eternal problems of corruption and disregard for property rights—discontent has been rising. History shows that economic grievances and political powerlessness make for a dangerous mixture.

The regime may still count on its police to disperse a few hundred demonstrators. But coercion can go only so far. On January 30 various opposition groups came together to stage a protest rally in Kaliningrad, Russia’s most western city. The rally was organized by Konstantin Doroshok, leader of the local branch of the Solidarity movement and part of a new generation of regional pro-democracy activists. The initial reason was a planned increase in transport taxes, but, predictably, the demands turned political: resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, resignation of Kaliningrad’s appointed Governor Georgy Boos, return of gubernatorial elections abolished by Mr. Putin in 2004. Police units, batons in hand, duly arrived at the scene, but chose to remain in their buses. The anti-Putin protest brought out not the usual 300 activists, but 12,000 peoplethe largest opposition rally in Russia in a decade.

The regime panicked. The Kremlin fired its supervisor for Kaliningrad and dispatched a top delegation to the region. Mr. Putin summoned the president’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, for an emergency meeting (forgetting that Mr. Surkov supposedly answers to President Dmitry Medvedev). Governor Boos flew to Portugal, then immediately returned and offered to meet with the opposition. As Newsweek learned from its Kremlin sources, Mr. Boos will not be reappointed when his term expires in September. Such a retreat in the face of public pressure would be unprecedented for Mr. Putin’s rule.

Two years ago, during his symbolic run for the presidency (he was predictably denied access to the ballot), legendary dissident Vladimir Bukovsky said that before Russian democracy returns to the halls of parliament, it will first be reborn on the streets. The opposition’s success in Kaliningrad may well have been accidental. But it may also be the beginning of something new. Perhaps the winds of change in Russia are finally blowing from the west.

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