By Lucian Kim, Special to CNN
One year ago this month, the impossible happened. Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow in the largest anti-government demonstrations since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Conventional wisdom held that Russians, enjoying the windfall from a decade-long oil boom, prized economic well-being over political enfranchisement. But when last December’s parliamentary elections were marred by reports of widespread fraud, Muscovites had enough. The target of their rage was Vladimir Putin, who showed no intention of stepping aside after 12 years in power.
One year later, Putin appears to have prevailed. He returned to the Kremlin after officially taking 64 percent of the vote in the March presidential election. His rubber-stamp parliament pushed through a raft of laws to stifle dissent, and dozens of opposition activists – including the performance art group Pussy Riot – are bearing the brunt of a judicial onslaught. Russians’ readiness to protest has seemed to fizzle as last winter’s coalition of liberals, leftists and nationalists shows signs of fraying.
Yet to call it a victory would be premature. Putin’s biggest enemy isn’t even the opposition, but the simple passage of time.
A year ago, protesters first raised the possibility of Putin’s political mortality as they rallied on streets and squares.
During his first two terms as president and an interim period as prime minister, Putin enjoyed genuine popularity thanks to the petrodollars flooding into the country. A streamlined hierarchy that precluded a viable opposition reinforced his seemingly invincible political machine.
The tipping point came when Moscow’s middle class abandoned Putin in their frustration with political stagnation and official corruption. In March, he failed to win even half the vote in the capital.
While a passive majority in the rest of the country still supports the status quo, it hardly constitutes an active political base that would ever come to Putin’s rescue.
Putin’s physical mortality is also no longer a taboo. Since his 60th birthday in early October, the jet-setting president has kept an unusually low profile, limiting public appearances and keeping to his residence outside Moscow. Official denials of a serious back injury have only fueled speculation about his true condition – and evoked comparisons to ailing Kremlin leaders such as Boris Yeltsin or Leonid Brezhnev. On Monday, Putin traveled to Turkey on his first foreign trip in almost two months.
The uncharacteristic absence of a leader who has promoted the image of an iron-pumping, micro-managing czar comes at a time when his inner circle is already in disarray. An undeclared war on corruption has cost the job of a defense minister and led to a media campaign on state TV against a number of other officials, including a former agriculture minister.
Skeptics see the scandals as the result of infighting among rival clans that only create the impression of a fight against graft. Yet the uncertainty of who may go next belies the stability that Putin made the hallmark of his rule.
As for the opposition – as immature and vain as they have proven to be – they can afford to wait.
The so-called Coordination Council that activists elected in October has been derided as unrepresentative and unimportant. Of course, the council can only claim to represent those who chose to participate, namely the most active and committed members of Russia’s politicized middle class. But at least the forum provides a much-needed structure to a disparate movement.
Time isn’t on Putin’s side.
Having concentrated so much power in his own hands, he will ultimately be held responsible for anything that goes wrong. By deciding that only he was fit to lead Russia, Putin has merely postponed the question of a peaceful succession.
Ready or not, a new generation of Russians is waiting in the wings.