Anyone who travelled to Moscow at the time of the Soviet Union must remember their awe at the first sight of Red Square. Though the scene had been previewed inside the traveller’s unconscious by years of grainy Cold War TV news clips of military parades with trailers of ICBMs each November and May, the reality was of a vast and brooding emptiness. The Hammer and Sickle Red Flag above the massive Kremlin Wall warned the onlooker of the cruelty of the power that resided here.

On December 25, 1991, a flag of red, white and blue stripes that had been briefly Russia’s pennant for several months in 1917 between the fall of the Czar and the seizure of the state by the Bolsheviks returned to the mastheads. In post-Soviet years, the square became an almost festive place. Early on, former exile Mstislav Rostropovich returned to offer a stunningly moving cello recital to celebrate freedom, and before long, amplifiers pulsated off the ancient bricks the beat of Paul McCartney of the once forbidden Beatles to a massive crowd of young new Russians symbolically putting the Soviet Empire behind them.

Along the other long side of the square was the art deco façade of the 1890s GUM department store, which in Soviet times served as a grisly market for those clunky items the Soviet system offered its long-deprived would-be consumers. Its grimy food stalls emulated rations from the front lines. Today, under sparkling chandeliers GUM’s spotless aisles surround a glitzy world of Chanel and Longines, with refreshment provided for those with the dough: Moët & Chandon. The prices there for Louis Vuitton or Armani dwarf what retailers ask on New Bond Street or Rodeo Drive, because in Moscow, for people who wear Prada, money is no object.

Outside GUM ordinary families do happy turns on a huge skating rink whose danceable music chases away any memory of the martial band music of those intimidating parades.

And yet the military parades are back, reinstated in 2008 in keeping with the renewed patriotic emphases of the statist Putin era that succeeded the clumsy but earnest decade of attempt at popular democracy under Boris Yeltsin.

Today, under sparkling chandeliers GUM’s spotless aisles surround a glitzy world of Chanel and Longines, with refreshment provided for those with the dough: Moët & Chandon. The prices there for Louis Vuitton or Armani dwarf what retailers ask on New Bond Street or Rodeo Drive, because in Moscow, for people who wear Prada, money is no object.

At the beginning of the 1990s when a coup by hardline Soviet throwbacks tried to smother Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, Anatoly Sobchak, the suave ostensibly liberal mayor of Saint Petersburg, warned that “democracy and dictatorship were living side-by-side.”

So they are still, impulses that, as was the case for the ambivalent Sobchak himself, can even reside within the same person. The critical question for Russia today is whether newly re-elected President Vladimir Putin even has a democratic side to his nature, or whether his until now dominant resentment toward any sign of competition for the monopoly he has solidified on power will clash with the growing democratic force we have recently seen emerge in the public space of Russian cities.

In the West there has been great disappointment over Russia’s course during Putin’s decade in power as he subtracted democratic space and ramped up the anti-Western rhetoric, behaving also as a resentful spoiler internationally on several peace and security issues.

But Western disappointment is beside the point. As anywhere, change can only come from the people in question.

To understand Russia today it is essential to understand why for a time Vladimir Putin met Russians’ expectations before examining why there are now such vivid signs of impatience with him. Where is the balance, and where are the trends heading? Having just been re-elected, what will he do?

Almost all of Russia felt that things had gone fatefully wrong in the 1990s. President Boris Yeltsin’s approval ratings were in the single digits.

Vladimir Putin was catapulted into the highest office to save the situation and to save the Yeltsin “family” from prosecution by any potential successor at a time when a vengeful group led by another ex-KGB figure, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, was mounting serious opposition.

Yet when the Russian flag had gone up over the Kremlin at the end of 1991, Russian progress to an authentic democracy had seemed irreversible. Boris Yeltsin stood for three essential freedoms:

  • Elections;
  • Property;
  • Speech.

He didn’t have a profound understanding of institutional issues but he understood power relationships. But he began before long to fudge on the propriety of elections and we turned a blind eye, worried about his xenophobic nationalist and throwback communist adversaries.

On property, Yeltsin was seemingly blind to the fact that people in a position to do so were just grabbing whatever they could. He gave the monopoly to import liquor into Moscow to his tennis coach.

On freedom of speech, Moscow remained a cacophony of opinions, analyses and rants of all kinds.

The test, though, of any attempt to consolidate and legitimize a revolution is whether it delivers the goods — justice and fairness, to be sure, but also, according to the hierarchy of needs, security, predictability and economic opportunity.

The massive, overwhelming problem for Russian reformers 20 years ago was that there was no blueprint for doing this. For a century there had been innumerable scripts for converting capitalism to socialism, but none going the other way. There was no precedent for a voluntary change this wide or this deep to a society.

No one knew the way, and certainly no one in the West, though there was no end to the crowds of expensive consultants and technocrats wading in way beyond their depth, thinking Russians could just sort of do it the way we did it in Toronto and New York. But Russians didn’t have the institutions, capacities, laws or inbuilt behavioral reflexes. Human capital was run down and beaten up after 70 years of Soviet totalitarian governance.

People had no instinct for personal accountability. The prime takeaway lesson from that time for students of “transitology” was exactly the evidence that democracy is behavioral, not a process, or an “app” to be downloaded. The rule of law is more than statutes and courts — it resides within the heads of citizens. It has to be learned, experienced and applied over time.

Its building blocks are those of civil society, which hardly existed in Russia.

Western advisers and even leaders bought into the mantra of “shock therapy” without having a clue about the human costs of an unprecedented overturning of a whole system so that everything became its opposite.

The modus operandi became contingency and improvisation. I once heard on the radio good-guy reformer Anatoly Chubais, who was privatization “czar” (and later prime minister), say they would do privatization “Canadianstyle.” Wondering what in God’s name he was talking about, I asked him.

Chubais replied: “It’s a hockey thing. Remember the ’72 series? Our guys played the old Soviet-style hockey, control the puck, pass, pass, pass, wait for the perfect opening to go to the net. When your guys got the puck, they threw it to the end of the rink, and piled in after it to see what might happen in the way of a scoring opportunity. Your guys won.

“Here’s our challenge: how can you de-control a society in a controlled way?”

It was a critically valid point, and the answer, looking back, seems to be that it takes time. But the reformers in power felt the pressure of time, an urgency to act while they were still in office, because there was already pushback, not just from the hardline side Sobchak warned about, but from a population destabilized by social convulsion.

Yeltsin passed by referendum (after a confrontation with an insurrectionary Soviet-era parliament) a constitution in 1993 that meets any democratic test admirably — except that it has been less and less observed.

That is when Russia began its act as an “imitation democracy.” A small number of inside interests began to take over the instant “market economy” and the whole system.

Chubais’s hope that new robber barons would turn into Andrew Carnegie and Leland Stanford-type benefactors in the space of a few years seemed clearly delusional. I remember in 1996 being invited to the private enclave in dacha-land outside Moscow of Menatep, a bank built from the oil revenues of Yukos, the energy giant ex-Komsomol staffer Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrested by intimidation and guile from state assets, and glimpsing their parallel world of entitlement, privilege and outlandish luxury. There was no question then of the oligarchs and their well-paid minions giving anything back — it was all about take. (Khodorkovsky’s jail-cell repentance and determination if and when he is freed to work for Russia’s benefit strikes me, however, as sincere: a belated validation of Chubais’s hopes. So are beneficial media and other activities of early Putin booster, now an enemy forced into London exile, Boris Berezovsky, who lived on Grosvenor Square almost adjacent to the Canadian High Commission. My wife and I would spot him sometimes getting out of an armoured limo at night and we would start to chat in Russian as we went by, for the fun of seeing his bodyguards tense up like meerkat sentries when a predator’s near; silly, but the High Commissioner’s life is stuffy and dull.)

It was clear that private interest was trumping the public good. Russia plunged into a dangerous unknown. All the stories of hardship are true. The other day, speaking to a class at Moscow State University (MSU) in a new building that the University of California, Berkeley, couldn’t afford to build, I recalled having a 1995 guest lecture rescheduled in the old MSU building from afternoon to the morning, because there was no electricity to light the class for students who wore mittens because there was no heat. My favourite bartender at the Canadian-managed Aerostar Hotel (which would soon be stolen by Russian joint venture “partners”) was a thoracic surgeon.

“Democracy” became identified in the public mind with chaos, violence, crime and unfairness. There was too much change, too fast. Russia’s GDP declined every year from 1991 to 1998 when the ruble crashed and Russia declared itself insolvent, and everybody’s savings became formally worthless.

The tipping point was probably the terrorism of the late 1990s, and especially the blowing up of apartment blocks, in the North Caucasus but also in Moscow itself.

Veteran journalist Masha Gessen describes in her new and hostile book on Putin, Man Without a Face, the atmosphere when fearful people preferred to sleep in parks over tossing and turning in fright on the 12th floor. She presents her evidence that the bombings were in reality the work of the KGB successor, the FSB, to create havoc and a change in the regime, a longheld conspiracy theory in what after all was for a few generations the undisputed global capital of conspiracies.

It’s difficult to credit. Putin is a hard guy, but not a monster.

Doubters like Gessen point to Putin’s speech December 18, 1999, just two weeks before becoming acting president of Russia, to a banquet of veterans of the secret police:

“I would like to report that the group of FSB officers dispatched to work undercover in the federal government has been successful in fulfilling the first set of assignments.”

The room exploded in laughter. In all objectivity, and remembering that my dominant impression of Vladimir Putin after first meeting him in Saint Petersburg in 1995 was of his sardonic deadpan sense of humour, I accept his own explanation that this was just too good a joke to miss.

Vladimir Putin was indeed a bold contrast to Yeltsin — sober, serious, effective, decisively in charge. It wasn’t yet apparent he was also a stark contrast to Yeltsin in his lack of democratic instincts and his inbuilt suspicion of the West.

The outcome of Russia’s mess in the late 1990s is that Vladimir Putin, who had earned a reputation in his post-KGB days in Saint Petersburg as a competent, safe and seemingly incorruptible pair of hands, first became prime minister and then, in a deft move by the Yeltsin family, assumed the presidency when Boris Nicolayevich announced on New Year’s Eve, 1999, that he was stepping down because the new millennium needed a new face for Russia.

Vladimir Putin was indeed a bold contrast to Yeltsin — sober, serious, effective, decisively in charge. It wasn’t yet apparent he was also a stark contrast to Yeltsin in his lack of democratic instincts and his inbuilt suspicion of the West.

Putin restored order in Chechnya via a ruthless and corrupt surrogate Ramzan Kadyrov. After 9/11 when he instantly offered support to President George W. Bush, the US was less prone to criticize Russia for harshly suppressing Muslim separatists.

Living standards began to shoot up with a spike in the price of oil. In the course of the next decade as Russia became the world’s biggest oil producer, per capita income soared 142 percent (figures 1 to 3).

Putin made Russians feel better about their place in the world, much as Ronald Reagan had done for Americans in the early 1980s. As Dmitry Trenin writes in Post-Imperium, Russians were not nostalgic for empire but sentimentally and selectively missed some of the softer aspects of Soviet life. Polls showed they didn’t want to return to it, however.

They did feel deceived by the West, and Putin’s more assertive foreign policy was popular. The breakup of the Soviet Union and empire had after all been astonishingly peaceful. Demilitarization had been abrupt, going from 3 million in Soviet uniform to about 1 million today. From the Russian point of view, and it is largely correct on this, they had ended the Cold War unilaterally and they expected the post-Cold War world to offer them a partnership of dignity and stature.

Instead, they felt treated like outsiders, their interests in their view ignored, while NATO expanded eastward and newly independent neighbours asserted post-Soviet national identities with anti-Russian rhetoric some in the West seemed to welcome.

President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker had assured them there were no “winners” in the Cold War. First, Brian Mulroney and then Jean Chrétien worked hard to winch Russia into the G7 club of “bigs.”

But Russians still felt like losers, as NATO bombed their Serbian ally and the US invaded Iraq with no consultation with them, seemingly doing whatever they wanted in a newly unipolar world, and laying out plans for a missile defence system on Russia’s borders.

Putin pushed back in Europe, where Russia had gas supply muscle, and in the “near abroad,” the ex-USSR neighbourhood. He pumped up the nationalist rhetoric.

Politically it worked. His support was massive. In the cities, a growing middle and professional class enjoyed the dominant prize of post-totalitarian living, the gift of free and private life.

It was a bargain of sorts. After the convulsions of the 1990s, Russians needed a period of calm and Putin seemed to provide it along with a better economic deal for most. In return, Russians went into a sort of political hibernation, not objecting when Putin took over TV — where 70 percent of Russians get their news — for the state.

Nor did they protest when mismanagement and/or the political wish to appear tough cost about a thousand lives in the sinking of the submarine Kursk, and when terrorist atrocities took place in a Moscow theatre and a school in 2004 in tragic Beslan.

Russian democracy activists and NGOs objected to the subtraction of democratic space and excessive violence but were simply ignored or rudely derided by Putin as Western puppets. They had no coherence or mass weight when police investigations into murders of reporters Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova lapsed into incompetence and seeming indifference.

Putin’s appointment of his chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev, to succeed him as assured candidate for the top office (after stepping down after two terms as required by the Constitution) while he assumed the post of prime minister struck everyone as cynical. It was widely expected Putin was keeping open the option to run for a non-consecutive third term when his surrogate’s first term was up. But as president, Dmitry Medvedev actually began to catch on with the public. What he picked up on and played to was change in Russian society. He attracted genuine interest from the growing numbers of younger post-Soviet professionals and the more self-confident middle class in the big cities. Putin still appealed to older, rural, nationalist, poorer and even nostalgic folk, but their numbers were beginning to shrink.

Medvedev treated NGOs with dignity and met with civil society. He spoke of the need to modernize, including in Russia’s governance. A lawyer, he emphasized reform of the judiciary and summarily fired top Interior Ministry officials over human rights abuse.

Expert scholars such as Stanford’s Kathryn Stoner-Weiss advanced the notion the two formed a “dyad” of Medvedev’s soft line and, when necessary, Putin’s hard one, in order to manage confrontation with the xenophobic nationalist right whose threat Putin was said to take much more seriously than discredited democrats or Communist old fogeys.

But the cynics were right. The rapport de force between the two remained unequal — “Batman and Robin” as one wag put it — so on September 24, 2011, when it was announced that they would soon switch places again, it was not a huge surprise.

Putin’s later explanation that they compared poll ratings and, his own being higher, they agreed to go with the one with most support might have been swallowed, albeit with a wince, had Putin not at the outset said offhandedly it had all been decided “years ago.” He made it clear he couldn’t care less about public opinion.

In interviews this February in Moscow I was told again and again that people felt “duped,” and basically humiliated.

Moreover, what Putin didn’t grasp, these were not the same people as when he came onto the national stage in 1999. As the New Yorker‘s David Remnick, the American Russo-observer par excellence, wrote, “A national mood can change and has.”

Social research director at the analytical centre Levada, Alexey Levinson cited the polling data that bear this out. At the beginning of Putin’s first term, the urban/rural difference in attitudes was not that great.

But as the decade went on, and as the economic benefits from the price of oil multiplied the ranks of the upwardly mobile and professional class, the cleavage grew.

By the time of the December 4 parliamentary elections, their dissatisfaction at being treated like political infants and fools had been stoked by access to the Internet and ample foreign travel, which reminded them of the norms applicable elsewhere. Russians are literate, educated, gregarious and technically among the most fluent people on earth. The 60 million who are on line every day connect. Macro-bloggers like Alexei Navalny knew exactly the tone of irony with which to state the case that Russian governance had to change to suit the new, apparently national, mood.

Levinson did caution me that despite the evidence of urban/rural cleavage, it was in part over the question of means. The actual demand for change could be measured across society. But poorer and older folk had a more vivid memory of the convulsions 20 years ago than the largely post-Soviet young elites. Whereas the latter broadcast “Goodbye, Putin,” the older ones looked to Putin for change.

Tone-deaf, Putin didn’t get the need for change. What he gave Russians December 4 was an election so childishly fixed it embarrassed citizens across the board.

Was it Putin himself who ordered it fixed? It’s the culture he favoured that made its operatives do whatever they thought the boss wanted done. It was force of habit too. The ruling party has been fixing elections from the very start. This time, Putin’s people and his party, United Russia, went too far. Ballot-stuffing was clearly exposed on YouTube. Some results defied belief: 99.5 percent for United Russia in Chechnya?

But the whole biased structure of election organization under a puppet at the Election Commission is problematic.

  • Anybody apt to present genuine opposition had registration denied: opposition parties were harassed from start to finish, their rallies broken up because of “bomb threats,” etc.
  • Their publicity was disallowed, including in schools where pro-United Russia literature flourished. TV didn’t cover them or give them presentation time.

Even with these advantages, United Russia lost 77 seats, plummeting from over 64 percent last elections to under 50 percent — and those are official figures after the frauds. In Leningrad Region, where civil society was able to scrutinize, the support was 33 percent.

Authorities tried to break any protest — the election watchdog GOLOS was shut down by “denial of service” to its Web site. Ekho Moskvy, the independent radio station, suddenly had its board and director changed by principal shareholder Gazprom (in effect the state within the state).

The breakup of the Soviet Union and empire had after all been astonishingly peaceful. Demilitarization had been abrupt, going from 3 million in Soviet uniform to about 1 million today. From the Russian point of view, and it is largely correct on this, they had ended the Cold War unilaterally and they expected the post-Cold War world to offer them a partnership of dignity and stature.

But the old methods of intimidation failed. The social networks proclaimed United Russia in Navalny’s phrase, the “Party of Crooks and Thieves” (which quickly became a Moscow bumper sticker).

And they came out to protest and to express their impatience and their shame. Several I met in Moscow said how they had gone to the first protest expecting to see a shivering cluster of the same ineffective gang, and instead encountered thousands. That first night, the police arrested many, including Navalny (who continued to blog from behind bars).

But the beat of indignation could not be quelled. In succeeding weeks each demonstration was larger than the one before. They were peaceful, peppered by ironic messages competing with each other for thrust.

It was lost on Putin. Any professional politician worth his salt would have acknowledged the election loss conveyed a message and vowed to do better, but not Putin, who dismissed the protests. He indeed laid responsibility for them at the door of Hillary Clinton and other Westerners whom he accused of showering Russian NGO “traitors” with bribes, spawning a cascade of ironic demo signs saying “Hillary! Where’s my $$$$???”

The fact is that the election fraud and Putin’s out-of-touch attitudes broke his aura of invincibility. He had already had a Ceausescu moment, being booed lustily by spectators at an ultimate fighting match a few weeks earlier. He had become a widely disliked ruler even if it was unlikely he would lose the presidential elections coming up March 4, especially after the cast of permitted opponents had received the usual culling down to the usual handful of has-beens plus an implausible billionaire political neophyte, Mikhail Prokhorov.

The “imitation democracy” of Putin was simply unacceptable to post-Soviet crowds gathering in increasingly greater numbers, mostly under 40, who were less likely to compare their situation to that of their parents and more likely to compare it to the norms of peers in Germany. They had been apolitical, despising parties and organization, but like in Tahrir Square they cohered into an implacable and intelligent mass. Also like Tahrir Square, the grievances were less explicitly about “democracy” (and were certainly not stoked by other countries) than about “fairness,” “justice,” “dignity” and the corrupt regime of special privilege.

One long-standing grievance was over the prerogative of overentitled insiders to bypass at high speed jammed columns of commuter traffic by means of a blue light on the roof, an abuse that received poignant resonance when a speeding limo killed two female physicians with apparent impunity. Muscovites took to tying their kids’ blue plastic buckets to their car roofs in mocking derision.

Putin doesn’t know he is being derided because he doesn’t get that the mood has passed a point of no return. He no doubt takes solace in polls that do show that a majority of Russians still prefer “strong leadership” over “democracy” to deliver effective government.

The point is they are not receiving effective government; the 2008-09 recession cost the GDP 10 percent.

There are some staggering issues on his plate, most of which Putin has not addressed:

  • The demographic and health crises — the median life expectancy of Russian men has plummeted to below 60;
  • 12 to 13 million illegal immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia who have triggered xenophobic reactions but who, like in Arizona, perform essential tasks. Indeed, there is an acute labour shortage;
  • The overreliance on oil and gas, accounting for about half of government revenue, with Siberian fields beginning to run dry;
  • The prospect of economic stagnation as Russia fails to upgrade to the next level, which will cause Putin big political grief;
  • Electoral promises such as salary increases for teachers, doctors, police and military (all deserved on the face of it), amounting to over $160 billion (he has to pray that oil prices reach and stay at over $130 a barrel to finance them);
  • Outflows of capital that dwarf foreign investment inflows as Transparency International downgrades Russia to the bottom 15 percent of economies. Even the professional and middle classes place their savings abroad.

Putin does not seem to grasp that the imperative of modernization is inconsistent with vertical top-down control.

Modernization does not mean westernization. Nor does modernization in itself necessarily lead to democracy. But it enables social and cultural changes, which are clearly happening in Russia, and these make democratization possible — even quasi-inevitable — via civil society, which in Russia has taken root — several of its effective exemplars spoke to me of its increasingly self-sustaining lifelines.

In sum, further and necessary modernization is hard to imagine without some form of genuine democracy.

Putin’s re-election (he is now the only federal official, including members of Parliament, who is directly elected) on March 4 with 63 percent of the vote (down from Medvedev’s 71 percent last time) does not meet a democratic test. It’s not the routine, if lower-level, fraud in electoral counting and mechanics is the issue — he would have had well over 50 percent even without those. It is the whole notion of pretending to offer a choice while ensuring there is little to choose from — “imitation democracy.”

Increasingly, Russians want the real thing. What is Putin going to do?

He can crack down and tough it out. It won’t work. He can ratchet up the anti-Western rhetoric and hope to appeal to Russian identities to overcome the distaste felt by individual perceptions, but my impression and a scrutiny of polling suggests that Russians have grown up and out of that old game.

There are some encouraging signs. During the major protests after the December 4 election fraud, the police made no arrests of the peaceful marchers, and even behaved helpfully. State TV, for once, covered the events more or less straight.

The fear when I visited just prior to the March 4 election was that these intelligent responses to protest were only temporary. But a few weeks later work on reform of the electoral registration laws seems real, and there is talk of Khodorkovsky’s sentence being reduced.

Vladimir Putin has shown a distaste for democracy but he’s a very smart guy when his cockiness doesn’t get in the way of his judgment, and maybe, just maybe, he can adjust.

Students told me how horrible it feels to have had only one ruler in their sentient lifetimes and how depressing to contemplate another 12 years of it. This may explain why so many want to emigrate, a huge potential threat to Russia’s future. Does Putin grasp that? Instead of comparing himself to Peter the Great, can he re-invent himself once again to change that forlorn paradigm of public despondency?

And what about the West and Putin?

Did we learn from our mistakes in advising Russia 20 years ago? Can we resist the temptation to put our labels on things as we did then, as if we were the norm-givers and Russians the norm-takers?

Obama seems to get it’s not about us. The outstanding new US ambassador, Michael McFaul, whom Putin lackeys have vilified because he takes civil society as seriously as he does them, reminded me that President Obama declared that the “Cold War wasn’t my war.”

I did hear a theory around Moscow that in the “power” ministries, the Cold War is alive and well, whatever Putin chooses to do or say. I have heard the same thing in Washington about the security and intelligence community there, and to listen to the inadequate Republican presidential hopefuls is to weep tears more copious still.

But these subrealities have in the end a biological solution.

Canada’s role is to be sensible, to work with Russia, to reacquire the strategic partnership we had 20 years ago that we have allowed to wither in recent years of boasting and bombast. We have no influence there now but we should and could have again, sharing the top half of the world as the two greatest land masses on earth, many extractive activities and Arctic vocations in common. If we do have problems with the way Putin does things in his country, and we should if he doesn’t change — then we are better equipped to address them as a strategic partner than as an irrelevant outside critic.

Russia contains many contradictions. But Russia also fills a big place in the world’s history and imagination. That history is taking another historic turn. We need to pay positive and creative attention.

Photo: Shutterstock

Contributing Writer Jeremy Kinsman served as Canada’s ambassador or high commissioner to 15 countries and organizations, including Russia, Britain and the European Union. He currently heads a Community of Democracies program for democracy development and is Regents’ Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. He is distinguished visiting diplomat at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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