If you weren’t in awe when you read about the anti-Putin demonstrations all across Russia, let me tell you a story.
Last time I shot a television program about politics in Russia, only a couple of years ago, the camera crew and I happened upon a public demonstration across the street from the Moscow headquarters of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party. There were about 20 men standing silently in a straight line along the sidewalk. They were holding signs protesting a decision in their town, not far from the capital, to build a United Russia office building on an empty plot of land where they had parked for years when they headed to their factory jobs next door.
To be sure, in the dark days of the Soviet Union, I saw KGB thugs assault and arrest dissenters for simply stepping across a chain to lay a flower at the foot of a statue. (They also pulled the camera off my cameraman’s shoulder and threw it on the ground. Thankfully, heavy snow cushioned the impact and the tape survived, airing across the U.S. that night on ABC.)
In contrast, the men I saw across from Putin’s party headquarters weren’t hauled away and arrested. Russia had come that far. But when the protest leader saw that one of his comrades had backed halfway off the sidewalk and had his heels on the grass, he shouted a stern warning to everyone to keep their feet strictly on the sidewalk. They were still burdened with memories when simply stepping on the grass could be called “destruction of public property” and used a pretext for imprisonment.
Now, tens of thousands are openly defying Mr. Putin. And no wonder. As one of his opponents put it to me in Moscow, Putin has “squeezed the life out of Russian democracy.” While roughly fifty political parties were born in the 1990’s when the Soviet Empire crumbled, Putin disqualified one after another and whittled them down to about half-a-dozen, all friendly to his government. While there were popular elections for governors and senators in the new Russia, Putin pulled off a u-turn and today they are appointed by the president. While free speech blossomed in those early days, news organizations that aired dissent were shut down. Basically, the liberties for which people had yearned for decades didn’t last for a single generation.
While it would be foolhardy to predict the outcome of these new nationwide protests— more are planned for Christmas Eve— here is a hint: Russia will not necessarily turn to American-style democracy. One reason is obvious. At a certain point Putin will have to decide: is he like Mubarak in Egypt, willing to throw himself on his sword to preserve the peace, or like Assad in Syria, willing to take off the gloves to preserve his power. That verdict isn’t in but never forget: Putin’s roots are in the KGB.
But a second reason is more revealing of Russian history and the Russian people. On my trip two years ago, I interviewed a member of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. He was in one of the last surviving opposition parties (although since we met, his party has been disqualified along with the others). One of my questions was, how has Putin gotten away with dispossessing people of the democracy they had craved for so long?
His answer was, “Russians in the ‘90s had major problems: the economy fell down, incomes fell down, corruption grew up, many things were terrible. And the name for that was ‘democracy’.” From their experience, their definition of democracy is different from ours.
The third reason we can’t predict Russia’s political future is the immediate past. Yes, Putin’s party showed up with the most votes. But whose horse came in second? The Communists.
For a variety of reasons, the United States needs to partner with Russia. But any future partnership may be no better than it’s been.