December 30, 2011

Did Russian Civil Society Wake Up In 2011?

A "For A Fair Election" protest on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue on December 24
Like many of his generation, Aleksandr Gorbachev steered clear of politics for most of his adult life.

He moved to Moscow in the autumn of 2001, graduated from the prestigious Russian State University for the Humanities, and ultimately landed himself a good job as a deputy editor at "Afisha," a popular lifestyle magazine and web portal.

"I always thought of my generation as one deprived of historical opportunity," the 27-year-old Gorbachev wrote in a recent column explaining his reasons for participating in antigovernment protests.

"I haven't had a lot to complain about over the past 10 years. I have a job, a career, wealth, and comfort.... But eventually you want to become part of something bigger than yourself -- especially in a territory of 150 million. You want to feel not only that you belong to this territory, but that it belongs to you."

Gorbachev's journey from apathy to activism reflects a common refrain among many of the previously apolitical young professionals who comprised the backbone of the massive protests that attracted tens of thousands to the streets of Moscow and other cities in December.

In many ways, 2011 was the year Russian civil society woke up from its long slumber and found its voice -- powered by a newly politically conscious urban middle class.

"What you've got are the Moscow and St. Petersburg middle classes, who are used to choice and excellence in their private lives, becoming increasingly aware that they are not getting choice and excellence in the provision of public goods, in what the state does," says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern European correspondent for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "The New Cold War."

The disputed December 4 parliamentary elections and widespread reports of massive voter fraud provided the spark that brought the protesters to the streets in numbers unseen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- and unthinkable for most of Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule. But the underlying causes of this revolt, most notably mounting anger over official corruption and impunity, have been fermenting for years.

The increased wealth and confidence of the urban professional class, its newfound ability to organize over the Internet, and a global atmosphere of protest that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States also contributed to a combustible mix.

"It was a perfect storm. And it's one that, I think, was foreseeable. But people in the system either diminished it, or didn't care, or thought that they would just ride through it," says Nicholas Gvosdev, a professor of international politics and Russia specialist at the U.S. Navy War College.

A Victim Of His Own Success

It's not difficult to understand why. Not so long ago, Russia's urban middle class was solidly behind Putin, grateful for the stability that allowed it to thrive even if it meant giving up some political rights. But as was the case in South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile in the late 1980s, once confident and comfortable, newly minted middle classes tend to clamor for their political rights.

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