Mismanaged democracy

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Events in Russia have a habit of proving people wrong. The oil boom allowed Vladimir Putin to re-establish a degree of order and to make Russia a "managed democracy". Now it looks more like a mismanaged one as economic crisis has undermined Putin's appeal and made the cronyism and corruption look even less acceptable.

The announcement of the stitch-up that would allow Putin to become president again in 2012 - and probably to stay on to 2024 - was greeted with huge cynicism. But only a few hundred went to a token demonstration in Moscow in September. No one really expected that by December tens of thousands would be protesting against electoral fraud in elections to the Duma (the Russian parliament) that were supposed to be a dry run for the presidential ones next spring.

Now some pessimists have become optimists and are asking, is this the beginning of the end for Putin and his clique? No one knows but it will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle and firmly close the stopper. On the official figures Putin's United Russia party got just under 50 percent of the vote - significantly down from its 64 percent in 2007. But many believe that the real share was as low as 35 percent, despite pressure to vote for the "party of power".

Putin and those around him are now openly ridiculed. He is compared to former Soviet-era leader Brezhnev who presided over a period of stagnation. Discussion of Putin's alleged use of botox to firm out his wrinkles makes him look silly. When he tried to belittle the demonstrators by comparing their opposition ribbons to condoms, he played into the hands of humorists who responded by saying that "Putinism" is a sexually transmitted disease against which you need protection.

The regime has therefore had to respond with a mixture of nationalism - opposition is all down to foreign intervention - some back peddling and soft repression. Leaders of the demonstrations, including the anti-corruption campaigner and blogger Alexei Navalny, were subject to short terms of imprisonment but emerged unbowed.

New demonstrations are now being planned. Getting people to sign up to come in advance on Vkontakte (the Russian facebook) has so far had the double effect of strengthening the confidence of protesters and weakening that of the authorities. But as the authorities get organised the tussle will become harder and dirtier. Russian politics is renowned for "black arts" with fake political parties and fake oppositionists used by those at the top to derail genuine concerns for change.

The Arab spring has shown that political creativity is better than any ready made recipes for popular protest. Navalny's description of those in power as "the party of crooks and thieves" has caught the popular imagination.

But some basic elements apply to protest the world over if it is to score some real successes. The first is that an opposition movement sooner or later has to draw on deeper roots. The anti-Putin demonstrations are the biggest political protests seen in Russia since 1993, but the numbers involved are a long way short of the 2.5 million pensioners who protested across Russia in 2005 over benefit cuts. It is certainly too easy to describe the current protests as a middle class revolt but the tens of thousands need to become hundreds of thousands. Navalny is a hero of the internet but before the protests only 7 percent of Russians had heard of him and even now he is probably still unknown to most of the population.

Second, the movement needs a credible position on how to oppose Putin. Before the Duma elections some argued for boycotting them completely - a brave act since you have to sign in to vote in Russia and you can be vulnerable to pressure if you don't. Officially some 40 percent didn't bother to vote. Navalny argued that people should vote for anyone but Putin. In the short term this position has some attractions given the negative aim of discrediting the regime. But "anyone but Putin" cannot be a serious longterm position because there are lots of fake and bad alternatives around.

Third, a connection needs to be more openly made between the demand for honest elections and challenging those who have seized ever greater wealth and power. When the global economic crisis hit in 2008 Russia's rich seemed to have made another grab for anything they could and then taken part of the loot out of the country (this included, as usual, moving wealth to an ever welcoming Britain, where no questions are asked about dirty money). When the editor of the magazine Kommersant published a picture of a spoiled ballot paper that, crudely translated, said "Fuck you Putin" he was immediately sacked by Putin's friend, the oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who also owns a chunk of Arsenal football club.

To win the presidential elections in the spring Putin will need 50 percent of the vote but unless he can pull something out of the hat his current popularity suggests that he might only get 25 percent fairly. In this case for him to stay in power the authorities will have to risk rigging the ballot on a scale that will dwarf anything seen last December.