Zakaria: The people vs. Putin
People stand on the tightly packed Bolotnaya Sqare during an authorized opposition protest against the alleged mass fraud in the December 4 parliamentary polls in central Moscow, on December 10, 2011. (Getty Images)
December 15th, 2011
10:52 AM ET

Zakaria: The people vs. Putin

By Fareed Zakaria

“We exist!” the crowd in Moscow chanted. Even protesters in Russia have a literary and philosophical flair. They also have courage. Over the past decade, political opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime have been harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed. But still, these men and women took to the streets, marching in the Russian winter, asking for the same things protesters around the globe have been asking for—dignity, inclusion, participation and freedom. Can they succeed in Russia?

The conditions that led to the Arab Spring were various. But chief among them was a sense of alienation and exclusion from the political and economic power structures of the country. That sense is strong in Russia today. According to a survey by the Levada Center, 52% of Russians believe corruption among the country’s leadership is higher now than it was even in the 1990s. (In 2007 only 16% of respondents felt this way.)

The Arab Spring was also about connectivity. A young, restive population with access to social media and other technologies was able to see the outside world and understand its own backward condition. Russia has an aging and shrinking population, but the protesters in Moscow include many young urbanites connected to the world with all the new information technologies.

Russia also has another crucial component that was part of the Arab revolt: economic growth that created a new middle class and, with it, rising expectations. In Egypt and Tunisia, the economy had been growing for several years before protests began, and liberalization had opened new industries and sectors to the world. In Russia, per capita GDP almost doubled from 1998 to 2010 (in constant dollars). That is why Putin has been popular for years. Of course, the Russian economy was lifted up less by reform and more by high oil prices (now topping $100 per barrel), which empower not Russian society but the Russian state.

Read the rest of my column at

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Topics: From Fareed • Russia

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. John

    I wonder just how much of a hand the C.I.A. and the British MI-6 are having in this. It seems like everywhere there's trouble, these people are there too! And now for the Putin bashing to begin in the West!!!!!

    December 15, 2011 at 10:59 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Fareed said, "Historians have pointed out that the Russian nation was literally the property of the Czar". This mentality still prevails today!

    December 15, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      After the fall of the Sovjet Union many in the Politburo partook in pillaging the state assets in the early 1990s. In the period of privatisations, Yeltsin’s government created a small but powerful group of magnates, known as "oligarchs", who acquired vast interests in the energy and media sectors.

      December 15, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Putin reduced the political influence of the oligarchs soon after taking office, forcing some into exile, prosecuting others – Mikhail Khodorkovsky – and acquiring their assets. These state-own energy giants Gazprom (gas) and Rosneft (oil) are in the hands of those in the Kremlin.

      December 15, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      In fact the middle-class lives on state enterprises and private developments. Unfortunately the legal system puts foreign investors off. The urban, educated middle class wants change – an open and democratic Russia.

      December 15, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Reply
    • ElRoz

      Yes it does: in the minds of western pundits and c/b- students in undergrad classes, not in actual Russia. Learn, study, open your mind, don't let others mislead you.

      December 18, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  3. Benedict

    It seems that it's not enough to well-off,but this prosperity must come with political freedom. It started in Arab nations,some of whom had fairly developing economies and yet,the leaders of these nations were attacked by their own people for not having the freedom to choose the next generation of statesmen. How this scenario plays out in Russia will depend on the civil society manages these protest and the reaction of the ruling party.

    December 16, 2011 at 3:49 am | Reply
    • ElRoz

      The tiny parties who could not get even 1-2% of the vote is not civil society...the "silent" majority (it is silent for the Western media, which ignores their rallies) is the civil society. The small parties pretend to be the voice of the people; western media pretends that they are; western pundits like Zakaria chose to believe them and thereby contribute to misleading the readers. Very sad.

      December 18, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  4. paul

    Dear Zakharia,
    I am sick and tired of the Cold War mentality! You do not understand that country, it goes through the transition period, and nobody could have done better than Russia leaders. You and Clinton are putting down Russia, what you could achieve is the communists would take over! Do you want it? Why you do not go to the nearest justr near your office OWS and interview them?

    December 18, 2011 at 11:07 am | Reply
  5. ElRoz

    These protesters are fringe elements from parties that got 0.5-2% of the vote. Across all of Russia no more than 150,000 marched: compare that with 1 million marching in London against invasion of Iraq (British government ignored them, preferring to follow Washington), and several million marching across the US to protest the planned invasion of Iraq (U.S. government ignored them). It's too bad the Western media are trying to make more of this than it is. The silent majority are satisfied with the elections, as were the 700 foreign observers Russia invited – they gave a "good" and "satisfactory" grade to the elections. If United Russia wanted to cheat, they would not have invited so many foreign observers, including many from EU. Plus there were communists and LDPR observers as well.

    This is why the fringe elements will never get their way (no matter how much the West wants to see a Russia with a weak leader instead of Putin) because they have no popular support.

    The presidential elections in March 2012 will only show this to be true even more, since Putin has a higher approval rating and popularity than the "United Russia".

    Of course there will be those that are against – just recall how G.W. Bush was inaugurated for his second term: the streets were lined with protesters holding anti-Bush posters as his closed and armored car raced through the streets.

    What do these infinitesimal fractions want? (though it is clear their goal is not reform and improvement, but chaos and noise). If they cannot even win 1% of the vote, they should look at their leaders, organization, and platform – at themselves. Those who didn’t want to vote for United Russia voted for the Communists; those who wanted neither of those, voted for A Just Russia; those who opposed all these, went with LDPR; the rest turned to Yabloko, etc. What is Medvedev supposed to do – start handing out votes to undeserved and irresponsible groups? That would be betraying the voters who voted for United Russia, AND also those who voted for the Communists, A Just Russia, and LDPR?

    December 18, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Reply

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