In just a few days, Russians go to the polls to elect a new President. All indications are they will choose a familiar face.
Vladimir Putin seems set to become president despite a surge in protests against his leadership.
Those protests have been largely confined to cities, especially Moscow, but unlike the Arab spring, these people are not facing a future blighted by poverty and unemployment.
Instead, they are among Russia’s more prosperous middle class.The low unemployment rate is the first key to understanding the motivations of the people who are protesting on Moscow’s streets and the person who knows a lot about that is Yuri Virovets, the president of the online recruiting company Headhunter.
It is not easy to keep up with Virovets as he charges around the headquarters of the company he founded nearly a dozen years ago. Through the security doors and down the stairs, he races past an office that would look right at home in Silicon Valley.
Young men parked in front of huge computer screens sit near a room full of beanbag chairs where the employees are encouraged to relax.
Given the boom times in Moscow, Virovets says his company is very busy.
“We have about 150,000 jobs open right now,” he explains.
In fact, Moscow is experiencing near a zero unemployment rate, meaning just about anyone who can read and write can get a job and get it fast.
“Companies and corporations are requiring qualified workers, qualified employees not only of the top level or top professionals but also the plumbers, the construction workers the any blue collar jobs, a lot of opportunities to find the job in half an hour if you want to,” says Virovets.
So Muscovites are working and a good number of them are making a very nice living but what do they do on the weekends?
Well, this past weekend, as they’ve done with increasing frequency in the past few months, tens of thousands of them have marched on to Moscow’s streets in protest against Vladimir Putin.It was the fourth of a series of large protests in recent months, unprecedented in the Putin era.
Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says those at the heart of this protest movement may be relative prosperous.
But Lipman says it is not about money. Instead, she says it is rooted in their growing disillusionment with government corruption and abuse of authority, capped by what they see as Putin’s trick to trade places with Dmitry Medvedev in order to become president again.
An angry mood, she says, became a movement, when parliamentary elections this fall were widely criticized as rigged. And it has nothing to do, Lipman says, with the Arab Spring.
“It’s born here, it’s a new generation of Russians, they do not look to the west for inspiration, let alone money. They are critically minded, broadly minded Russians. They do not share the mentality of dependence that more conservative minded Russians do they do not have the Soviet legacy of we should rely on the government or else,” says Lipman.
Lipman says their relative affluence also explains why the protesters are calling for change, but not for an overthrow. To them, she says, this is an evolution of democracy in Russia, not a revolution.
“This is not Tahrir Square, people have not shown any desire to come and stay until the leader resigns. This is a totally different environment. People come for a few hours of a sanctioned authorized rally and then happily after an event that’s hip and cool and fun they go back home, they go back home, they go back to their normal lives.”
That description seems to fit Yuri Virovets, the online recruitment executive. He may be wealthy, but he too has been out on the streets. And he is happy to admit he even borrowed a line from American rebel history when he created his protest sign.
“Me and my wife we made this slogan, no taxation without representation which is the slogan of the Boston Tea Party,” Virovets says with a chuckle.
Virovets believes something fundamental has changed in the last few months among people like him.
“They crossed this mental threshold and they understand that you can change something if you want to and there are a lot of people who are thinking like you. People get the knowledge they are not alone,” he said.
He has bet a friend an expensive bottle of whiskey that Putin won’t last the full six year term of his presidency. Masha Lipman isn’t so sure, but she does think Russia’s strongman is now vulnerable.
“Putin is weakened by these protests even if he has for the time being, he’s got all his elites showing loyalty, he’s got all his huge propaganda machine working for him, still he is undoubtedly weakened” Lipman said.
Weakened, but far from defeated.
Most public opinion polls are predicting a strong victory for Putin, indicating he still has solid support outside the cities. That means election day will mark a critical turning point for both Putin and the protest movement that has defied him.
The protesters are for the most part urban professionals who are not in the least upset about their economic situation. (Moscow has zero unemployment; most of those who took to the streets in Moscow are part of the postindustrial economy and they have modern professional skills and good jobs). This is by no means a movement borne of watching the Arab Spring. The Arab world can hardly be a role model for modernized Russians in Moscow. The mass protests in Moscow, and those of a smaller scope, in St. Petersburg and some other large urban centers, are entirely of Russian origin, a product of Russian societal trends triggered by political developments in Russia.
The mood of resentment toward the government has been fairly common among these and even broader social groups. Over the past 2-3 years the NONGOVERNMENT media and especially Internet sites and social networks have been filled with anger, vituperative criticism, derogatory jokes and aggressive political satire. What caused this anger is their view that there is corruption and lawlessness, a virtual absence of a rule of law and blatant abuse of authority by government officials and police.
For a while, however, this remained a mood, not a movement. People “turned their back” on the government and lived as it were in a parallel world. As long as they could have successful careers and engage in professional and life-style pursuits that they enjoyed, they were content to carry on. Elections? Of course, this group believed they were rigged, with preordained results. Their reaction then was simply not to vote.
The turning point was the “trading places” trick in that occurred in late September. That was when Medvedev declared he would not run and that Putin wouldl run instead. For his part, Putin said, if elected, he would make Medvedev his prime minister. Medvedev added that they had made this decision several years earlier. It was this contempt of the people that triggered change: the mood became a movement. Elections suddenly mattered: lots of young Muscovites volunteered as election observers andgained first-hand experience with blatant fraud. They changed their electoral behavior and voted for anyone to ensure that the United Russia ( the party of Putin’s loyalists ) would lose support and seats in the Russian parliament. This activism evolved into mass protests after the December 4 election. It was broadly seen as fraudulent, especially in Moscow where the rigging was especially blatant and the constituency was already more critical of Putin