A year ago, Russia was in an odd place between oppressive stagnation and a glimmer of possible change. The ruling party, United Russia, had just consolidated its hold on the parliament in a rigged election; the presidential transition was revealed as the farcical anointment of a handpicked successor to Vladimir Putin—the docile Dmitry Medvedev, who quickly promised to make Putin prime minister. Yet some Russian liberals, and sympathetic Westerners, harbored at least modest hopes that Medvedev might prove more liberal than Putin and that the division of power between president and prime minister might weaken Russia's neo-autocracy.
Today, the winds of change in Russia are blowing again—harsh winds that may yet turn into a storm.
The liberalization from above turned out to be a non-starter, despite Medvedev's declaration that "freedom is better than non-freedom." Any hopes of a thaw, or a Putin-Medvedev fissure, were crushed when Medvedev's first 100 days ended with the war in Georgia. (Whatever Georgia's responsibility for triggering this war, it was preceded by years of provocation and manipulation by the Kremlin—intended to destabilize a government perceived as unfriendly and send an assertive message to the West.)
The surge of "patriotic" sentiment that followed Russia's victory threatened to take the country even further down the authoritarian road. But history works in mysterious ways.
While Western sanctions in response to the war proved short-lived, Russia paid a heavy price for its victory in the flight of foreign capital—which both predated October's financial crisis and exacerbated its effects in Russia.
The crisis revealed the clay feet of the Putin/Medvedev regime, not only showing the extent to which its relative prosperity was tried to high oil prices but also exposing the fakery of its feelgood propaganda machine. While state-controlled television news avoided the word "crisis"—except with regard to the West—Russian citizens rushed to convert rubles to dollars. Polls by the Public Opinion Fund found a sharp drop in confidence in the mainstream media. By late December, close to half of Russians said that media reports on the economy were biased and minimized economic problems; 30 percent (up from 23 percent in November) said that "journalists know the real state of the economy but are not allowed to tell the truth."
Trust in Putin and Medvedev may suffer as well. Bizarrely, over 80 percent of those polled recently still approved Putin's performance as prime minister—though only 43 percent thought Russia was headed in the right direction. Yet, of the 17 percent of Russians who watched Putin's live televised question-and-answer session on December 4, fewer than half were satisfied with his answers.
The first rumblings of discontent came after the government announced a hike in custom duties on imported used cars to help Russia's auto companies (run mostly by Putin cronies). Importing used cars from Japan is a major source of livelihood in the Far East, which responded with major protests that quickly became political. Some demonstrators openly denounced Putin, Medvedev, and United Russia; many angrily demanded television coverage. After a week of protests, a peaceful rally in Vladivostok was brutally broken up by the riot police on December 21; several journalists, too, were beaten and arrested. While television news ignored the incident, many mainstream newspapers did not. Remarkably, several local legislatures in the Far East have backed the protesters' demands. So far, the government has refused to budge. But what will happen if the ranks of protesters swell from hundreds to hundreds of thousands?
So far, the Kremlin's strategy for dealing with political opposition is a carrot-and-stick approach. Among the carrots: an effort to co-opt the opposition with the creation of a Kremlin-funded "liberal" party, the Right Cause, and the appointment of a prominent liberal politician, Nikita Belykh, to a governorship. The sticks include proposed legislation that would make it easier to convict dissenters of treason or espionage, at least if they have any foreign contacts, and to take such cases out of jurors' hands. These laws have drawn objections even from the governmental Public Chamber, a monitoring body meant to function as a collective ombudsman—though whether these objections will have any effect remains doubtful.
Unlike the Communist regime, the authoritarian Russian state still has room for some legal resistance—from the independent media to pro-democracy movements to judges who refuse to convict government critics under vague "extremism" laws. These small islands of freedom face a vastly unequal battle against the forces of repression; but the outcome in this battle is more uncertain than it has been in a long time.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.