(Chrystia Freeland is a Reuters columnist. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
By Chrystia Freeland
NEW YORK (Reuters) - This has been a bad year for dictators, starting with the Arab Spring and ending now with the Russian Winter. If you are one of the autocrats who survived the annus horribilis of 2011, here are three lessons, drawn from some smart Russians and Russia-watchers, of what the unexpected Slavic protests this month could mean.
The first is that authoritarian regimes don’t run on autopilot. To survive, particularly in the age of the Internet, jet travel and global capital flows, dictatorships need to be savvy and effective. We often attribute the success of democratic revolutions to their brave leaders or the spirit of the times, but, as Lucan Way, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, argues, “authoritarian incompetence” can be an equally powerful driver.
That is certainly the case in Russia, where one reason United Russia, the party of power led by Vladimir Putin, did so poorly in elections this month is the simple fact that the regime made a lot of political mistakes.
“The ineffectiveness and stupid actions of the authorities have accelerated the process,” Grigory Chkhartishvili, the best-selling Moscow author who writes under the pen name Boris Akunin, explained in an email. He recalled asking Yegor Gaidar, the late architect of Russian economic changes, “when does he expect society to awaken. Around 2015, he answered, if they, meaning Putin and his entourage, do not make too many mistakes. Well, they have made too many mistakes.”
Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg, made a similar point this week. Gelman argued that the Kremlin’s wobble in December was an own-goal, or, as he put it, “a blow delivered with its own hands.”
The biggest mistake, in Gelman’s view, was “the attempt to mask Russian authoritarianism with a liberal facade.” That turns out to have been an error partly because “part of the political class and concerned members of civil society actually believed in the liberalization of the regime.”
But the bigger problem was that Russia’s authoritarian leaders became so infatuated with their political Potemkin village they neglected some of the coercive basics: focused as they were on the carrot, the authorities didn’t pay enough attention to the stick. Gelman contrasts this political season, when the government’s attitude before the election was “peaceful,” with the 2007-8 political cycle, when the opposition was repressed in advance and the state’s political machinery was fully engaged.
The standout example of authoritarian competence, by contrast, is China, whose rulers have continued to focus relentlessly on doing whatever it takes to stay in power. That determination was in evidence after the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union, which prompted a thoughtful and concerted effort to tighten government control, as did the uprisings in the Arab world this year.
The second lesson of the Russian protests is one that will be particularly worrying for China. It is that economic success does not guarantee political success. This equation is mystifying in Western democracies - where people tend to believe that “it’s the economy, stupid,” and usually they’re right.
That’s why the International Monetary Fund, which focused on Egypt’s healthy gross domestic product numbers, was wrong-footed by the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo. And it is why the demonstrations in Russia perplexed many foreign observers, who noted that many of their participants were well-heeled members of a middle class that prospered in the Putin era.
A partial explanation of this puzzle is that, as in Tunisia and Egypt, middle-class citizens in a dictatorship can be moved to protest by their souls, not just their pocketbooks. The refrain during the Arab Spring was that the protests were about dignity. As for Russia, Chkhartishvili put it another way: “This is not about bread, this is about cleanliness. It’s not political, it’s hygienic.”
Research by Carol Graham and Stefano Pettinato suggests another reason why a prospering society might still be a rebellious one. In work that initially focused on Russia and Peru, the two identified a group they described as “frustrated achievers,” people who had become both richer and less happy.
“Frustrated achievers are people who are just out of poverty or the lower middle class,” Graham, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. “They are people who have made relatively large gains, but they report being very frustrated.”
A source of that frustration, Graham said, was when “the gains around them are much bigger than their own, and bigger than they can ever achieve in their lifetime.” Post-Soviet Russia, with its oligarchs, crony capitalism and corruption, is a petri dish for frustrated achievers.
The third lesson of the Russian Winter is one it has in common with the Arab Spring. One consequence of the rise of social media is the emergence of what Way calls “leaderless protests.”
“In Russia, as in the Arab world, protests started largely spontaneously without the participation or instigation of the major opposition groupings,” Way said in an e-mail. “Instead, they were inspired by actors who came out of nowhere and lacked virtually any kind of organizational backing.”
But this new world is also hard to manage for the would-be revolutionaries. Twitter and Facebook may make it easy to get those frustrated achievers onto the streets. But the really hard work always starts the day after the revolution, and if you didn’t need to build a protest movement in the first place, you may soon lose power to the people who did. (Editing by Jonathan Oatis)