Russians Are Deeply Uncertain About The Impact Of The Arab Revolution On Their Country
It is only natural that, as Russians watch the developments in Egypt, Libya and other countries in the Middle East, they assess the dramatic events from their own domestic perspective. Given that Russian society is deeply polarized, and the major political players have vastly different interests, views throughout the country on the events in the Muslim world are radically diverse. There are four major factors that determine the Russians’ views on these developments: their attitudes toward Putin’s regime; their acceptance or denial of the universal character of democratic values; their assessment of the Islamic fundamentalist’s power throughout the world, and particularly in Russia; and their appraisal of the standard of living in Russia.
Russian leaders are clearly troubled by the turmoil in the Middle East. With their steadfast faith in the power of the authoritarian regime, it is unfathomable for them to reconcile with the thought that such a regime could instantaneously collapse. Even on the eve of Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, 2011, official Moscow and its journalists were confident that the Egyptian regime would survive.
Until the recent events in the Middle East, Moscow’s current leaders dismissed any internal threats to the frailty of Putin’s vertical power and chalked up any warnings from rival parties to wishful thinking by the opposition. It is true that the “orange” revolutions in Tbilisi (2003) and Kiev (2004) frightened the ruling elite and prompted the Kremlin to toughen its repressions against the opposition. However, by 2008, any apprehensions the Kremlin had regarding the stability of the regime had subsided, and confidence in the order had rebounded in full. Only with such «incredible conceit,» as Mikhail Gorbachev recently noted, could Putin and Medvedev decide between themselves who would preside as president next year. Their audacity also gave the Russian leaders the unbridled ability to almost openly command the judge to sentence Mikhail Khodorkovskii to a second term in prison—despite public protests both within Russia and abroad. This marked arrogance also explains why the leaders have virtually ignored the ostensible cooperation between criminal organizations and authorities throughout the country, which became evident in the aftermath of the November carnage in Kushchevskaia, a village in the Krasnodar region. To the surprise of the people, none of the high officials, who were evidently found to be in collusion with the criminals, were reprimanded.
Putin’s and Medvedev’s faith in the stability of the regime is based on the nonsensical idea that a spontaneous unrest of massive proportions is impossible without the existence of a strong oppositional political party and persuasive leaders. Since the Russian leaders have not seen any serious political opposition in Egypt, Libya or Tunis, the insurrections in these regions took them by complete surprise. It is, thus, understandable that official Moscow has underscored the idea that the unrest in the Middle East was organized by some “foreign forces.” While in Vladikavkaz in February, President Dmitry Medvedev went so far as to say that there were outside forces at play, and that they were plotting a similar revolution against Russia. In another statement via his twitter account, the Russian President attributed the destructive and fatal events in Libya to Western special services, “which prepared the same scenario for us.” He was even sure that said special services “[would] try to implement it with even more energy.” As a matter of fact, the doctrine of the foreign origin of all “orange revolutions” was created by the Kremlin immediately after the first one began in Georgia in 2003. This same doctrine had been used to explain the terrorist acts in the North Caucasus.
However, it was Putin—not Medvedev, who has attempted to hold onto the regime’s ambivalent attitudes toward the West—who expressed the Russian elite’s true feelings about the developments in the Middle East, when he spoke of the crucial role the USA has played in sponsoring the rebellion against the governments in the region. Putin’s outburst of anti-Americanism was prompted by the airstrikes made by coalition forces in Libya. In these military actions Putin saw one thing, first and foremost: an attempt to eliminate the leadership of a country the USA does not like. In his comments made on March 21 in Votkinsk, a city known for its military complex, Putin not only blasted all of the United States’ major foreign actions of the last decade, but described the goal of the war in Iraq as “the elimination of the Iraq government” and underscored the point that “even children in Saddam Hussein’s family were killed.” And when Putin used the Libyan events as an additional argument for reinforcing Russia’s defense capabilities, it was obvious how much he perceived his personal fate as being tied to the developments in the Middle East.
Of course, when the Russian leadership discussed the developments in the Middle East publicly, they did not even attempt to make a parallel between Middle Eastern society and Russian society, because Russia, as they assert, enjoys the benefits of both democracy and a high standard of living. Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, declared that drawing parallels between Russia and the situation in Egypt was “incompetent,” reacting to an earlier comment made by U.S. Senator John McCain. The first premier minister, Igor Shuvalov, asserted that the country needed changes but warned that the transformation of society ought to be carried out «without mass disturbances or any other social calamities,» such as those in North Africa and the Middle East. In their descriptions of the events in Egypt, Russian leaders have been sure to never mention the word “freedom,” or to bring up their severe disapproval and contempt for the dictatorship. Instead, they focused on the violence, anarchy and destruction happening in the region. Russian leaders do see a parallel to the events in the Middle East, but only in relation to North Caucasus. They are, indeed, concerned that the mass revolts in Muslim countries could have a negative impact on the Muslim republics in that area, especially now, when the situation in that part of the country has gradually been deteriorating over recent months. Putin’s declaration in Brussels about the possible carryover of events into the North Caucasus region was evidence of the Russian rulers’ concerns. The current state of affairs, particularly in the republics of Dagestan and Kabardino–Balkariia, where one terrorist attack has followed another in the last months, is indeed terrible; Moscow almost lost control over the region.
Reflecting the position of the leaders, the official media has reported on the events in Cairo and Tripoli with barely veiled irritation. During the days of the rebellions, the differences between Russian and American television have been spectacular. Whereas all American channels, from Fox News to MSNBC, have been greeting the rebellious Egyptians with excitement and predictions of a new democratic era in the Arab world, Russian television has shown only very moderate sympathy for the rebels. Official television analysts have tried to downgrade the international and domestic importance of the Middle East developments as much as possible, as have authoritarian regimes across the globe, from China to Venezuela. This is additional evidence that the Russian ruling elite, with all its harangues about democracy, are well aware of the camp to which their regime belongs.
Almost up until Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, the main television channels did not hide their sympathy for him, using kind words about his rule whenever possible. Before Mubarak’s resignation, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned the West against supporting the popular uprisings in the Middle East, in what some analysts saw as a sign of the Kremlin’s concern. Reflecting the disarray in the minds of the ruling elite, Aleksei Chadaev, a leading member of the pro-governmental party United Russia, rebuked Medvedev and his aides for their hostile attitudes toward Qaddafi on March 17 (Moscow did not vote against the resolution of the Security Council regarding the no-fly zone), suggesting to the president that he figure out what he will do in the case of an armed rebellion in Moscow.
It is typical of Russian television that, following the model the leadership set forth, the emphasis of their reports is on the economic deprivations of the Egyptians and Libyans, and on the general chaos in those countries that have rebelled against their dictators. Whenever possible, the televised media have tried to deflect attention away from the political role of the rebellion and the overwhelming resentment of the people toward the ruling authoritarian regimes, in the hope that the masses will not make a direct connection between the ruling regimes in the Middle East and their own government. The advocates of Putin’s regime have drawn the attention of the Russian public to a factor that has mostly been ignored in America—the harm the revolutions have done to the economy. They suggested that the damage brought by the rebellion is much larger than the consequences of corruption. As one Moscow author wrote, just three weeks of the Egyptian revolution did as much damage to their economy as one year under Mubarak’s corruptive rule.
Of course, much like the government leaders, the official televised reports have said nothing about the commonalities between the Russian and Egyptian problems. The major focus of the reports has been on the uncertainty of the outcome and on the economic—not political—roots of the rebellion. The anchor woman on one news program described the damage done to the Egyptian economy and their standard of living with particular gusto. It was an evident anti-revolutionary message to the Russian people, as well as to the intellectuals who have beckoned the masses to take to the streets. With unveiled enthusiasm, the official media developed the Kremlin’s theory that the West was the driving force behind the turmoil in the Middle East. Even Google is considered, by the deputy premier minister Igor Sechin, to be an agent of the American special services, which can be used as a catalyst for chaos.
The Russian leaders—not unlike Western officials—have generally avoided speaking about the Islamist factor in the developments in the Middle East. Major discussions about this sensitive issue were assigned to the official media outlets and their propagandists. Most of the official Russian experts, like the president of the Institute of the Middle East, Evgenii Satanovskii, have predicted a strengthening of fundamental Islam. In this respect, the liberal analysts really do not differ from many Russian professional propagandists such as Mikhail Leontiev. They all predict the ultimate victory of Islamic radicalism in the Muslim countries, and then use this threat as a warning to Russian critics of the regime: only the existing leadership can act as a bulwark against national radicalism in Russia.
Despite the authorized rationing of news reports from Egypt (several days before Mubarak’s resignation, the main news channel simply ignored Egypt as they reported on news from the Nile region), the events in the Middle East garnered great attention by Russians. According to the survey of the Fund of Public Opinion, 89 percent of Russians knew about the events—an extremely high indicator for a society that has become deeply apolitical and mostly indifferent to events abroad. During February, the public’s interest in the events in Cairo and Libya was only slightly less than its interest in the terrorist attack that took place in a main Moscow airport in January 2011. Most Russians are in full agreement with the official media, and believe that the cause of the developments in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East were not due to the yearning of the people for freedom and democracy, but due to the low standards of living. Fifty percent of Russians supported the economic explanation of the events, while only 8 percent pointed to political reasons, such as the infinite and indeterminate stay in office by the current leaders; few, however, mentioned a lack of freedom and democracy. How great an effect the events in the Middle East will have over the behavior of the Russians has yet to be seen. The truth is that, while the authorities and the media present the developments in the Middle East as irrelevant to Russia, the masses perceive these events differently. In a February 2011 survey, forty-six percent of Russians disclosed that they felt that an uprising like that in the Middle East could, indeed, occur in Russia. However, there has been no evidence in the last months that the people have changed their usual patterns of behavior. According to a nationwide opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center in February 2011, sixty-five percent of respondents believe that mass protests against falling standards of living or to protect people’s rights are unlikely in their city or town. Meanwhile, 28 percent of those polled regard an uprising as possible. There was not much of a difference in numbers when compared to a poll taken back in 2008.
Unlike the official media and hack intellectuals, most liberals have no illusions about the striking similarities between the political regimes in North Africa and Putin’s. They draw attention to the fact that the leaders in Russia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries have created a mere façade of democracy. The liberals also claim that in both the Middle East and in Russia, the assertion of an existing multi-party system is simply a false declaration; Moscow, Cairo and Tunis tolerated only a single party as an instrument of the regime. All of these authoritarian regimes created fictional oppositional parties and have refused to permit the registration of any party that could act as true opposition. In all of these regimes, the media has been heavily regulated by the government, and the outcomes of the races have been pre-arranged. Liberals have paid special attention to the remarkable similarities between Russia and the Middle East in the massive role of corruption in society and the leaders’ involvement in illegal commercial activity. Despite being united in their perception of the similarities between Putin’s regime and that of the Middle East, the liberals are divided about the lessons that could be drawn from the developments in this region of the world. The events in the Middle East could only fuel the heated debates about the future of democracy in Russia and the attitudes of ordinary Russians toward universal democratic values.
The majority of liberals does not believe in the universalism of democratic values and are pessimistic about the democratic future of Russia, mostly because they hold strong beliefs that ordinary Russians do not need democracy and are hostile to it. With such views regarding their own people, they do not believe—and here their views converge with the officials in Moscow—that the people in the Middle East want democracy and freedom. The mass revolutions in Egypt and Libya, with their negation of autocracy and their call for freedom, have been entirely unable to shake the convictions of these liberals, who insist that democracy as a political order can only function in the West and has no future in either Egypt or Russia. These liberals agree with the official media’s assessment of the role the Islamic factor has played. They are very much afraid of the growth of Russian nationalism—again, a congruency with the ruling elite—which reared its ugly head during the riot in Moscow’s Manezh Square in December, 2010.
The liberals are sure that it will not be democratic but Islamic values that will ultimately prevail in all of the Muslim countries, in the aftermath of these mass disturbances. Leonid Gozman, leader of the pro-governmental liberal party, “the Union of Right Forces,” is confident that, after a short period of euphoria, Egypt only has two alternatives: a return to an autocratic regime run by the military or an autocratic regime run by the Islamists. Leonid Radzikhovskii is sure that, even if an election takes place, the results will be the same as in Gaza: a full victory for the radical Islamists. Some liberals even hailed Mubarak as a good leader who saved his country from the Islamists. These liberals predict that in the event of a mass disturbance in Russia, and in the case of a true free election, rabid nationalists would come to power. In their skepticism of democracy as a universal value, Russian liberals are in the opposite camp from the American politicians who, like Elliot Abrams in the Washington Post, William Kristol in the Weekly Standard, or David Brooks in The New York Times, talk about the imminent triumph of democracy in the Muslim world and the failures of the clash civilization theory. Some liberal pessimists connect the imminent victory of Islamists in the Middle East with the offensive launched by Muslims in Europe. With their fear of Islamists, it is only natural that the liberals see the Egyptian army taking full control as a positive situation, even if the military’s presence circumvents the democratic process.
Only a tiny group of Russian liberal optimists saw the developments in Egypt as a good sign for their country. To be sure, they are strong believers in the universalism of democratic values and in the high probability of a democratic victory in Muslim countries. They deny the fatalistic view of a victory for the Islamists, and assume that Russia will follow the example of Tunis and Egypt in “their move toward democracy.” Mikhail Gorbachev said that he is «ashamed» with the way Russia is run today, and warned the Kremlin that it could face an Egypt-style uprising. Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov, two oppositional leaders, share the view that “Russia is just like Egypt, Tunisia or Bahrain, where people can take to the streets for freedom,” and «a spring of freedom awaits us, too.” Journalists like Aleksandr Ryklin joined the handful of oppositional voices, praising “the Great Arab Democratic Revolution,” and mocked those who do not believe in the possibility of removing the authoritarian regime in Russia. Writing in a very liberal online journal, Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal, Vladimir Nadein said that the recent events in the Middle East have «made obvious» the ways in which “personalistic regimes are born, grow and ultimately fall,» and that “these generalities apply to many of the countries in the post-Soviet space.” As blunt as Nadein is, Igor Eidman, in his blog on Ekho Moskvy, is even more so. He argues that, despite what «Russian bureaucrats» say, «an anti-bureaucratic revolution is the most probable end of the current regime in the Russian Federation, just as it has been in Egypt and elsewhere.” In the article, “The Suicide of the Kremlin,” Matvei Ganapolskii is no less confident that “the disorder in Russia is unavoidable,” while Yuliia Latynina exclaimed on March 1, 2011 that “there is the smell of the February Revolution of 1917 in Russian air today.” Stanislav Belkovskii, a prominent analyst, also feels that “the current Russian regime is similar to the collapsing Arab regime,” and that the new habit at Moscow parties of the high monde, mocking Putin, heralds Perestroika Two.
Leftists and nationalists
The Communist and Nationalist critics of Putin’s regime, along with the optimistic liberals, were rather elated with the insurrections in the Middle East. Like these liberals, Communists see the rebellion in the Middle East as a warning to the Russian ruling elite. However, like their leader Gennadii Ziuganov, they do not see the causes of the developments in Middle East in the lack of democracy in the region but in the «extreme poverty, the dissatisfaction of the educated section of the population and a rapid increase in prices.» He also downgraded the role of democratic tendencies in the Middle East. The nationalists are even more aggressive than the Communists in their readiness to see the turmoil in the Middle East as a bad omen for Putin. A nationalist site referred to Medvedev as «the Kremlin Mubarak,” and predicts the demise of the regime. Remarkably, neither the Communists nor the nationalists can rid themselves of their anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. They assert that the developments in the Middle East were inspired by the United States and the Zionists.
The Hope of Liberals: The Internet
Under the impact of the developments in the Middle East, some critics of the regime—both liberals and leftists—place their hopes in the idea that the internet, particularly twitter, can play the same revolutionary role in Russia as it has across the Middle East. They point to the popularity of some blogs that are very aggressive toward Putin’s regime, like the new anti-corruption blog by Aleksei Navalny, which now heads a crusade against corruption. As Dmitrii Gudkov, chairman of the opposition youth organization Young Socialists of Russia, contends, 18-20 million people are following blogs like Navalny’s. However, several Moscow observers have doubts about the possibility of the Internet and social networks stimulating a Russian revolution. They refer to Russian born author Evgenii Morozov, who, in his now famous book, contends that the authorities can easily stop the use of Internet technology against the regime, and even manipulate it for their own benefit.
Pessimist liberals were called upon to not exaggerate the danger of social networks to the authoritarian regime, not only in Russia but also in countries. Twitter addicts are not necessarily nice revolutionaries, and users can ransack public buildings, as happened in Kishinev last year, or be extremely violent, intolerant and prone to Islamic radicalism.
First and foremost, the reaction to the developments in the Middle East exhibit, once again, how deeply insecure the Russian leaders and the ruling elite feel about themselves. Indeed, in most of their public presentations, Medvedev—and Putin in particular—boast about the progress of the Russian economy and its democracy; about its growing role and presence in the world; and about their successes in fighting corruption and crime. Both leaders are publicly confident that, in any scenario, one of them will be the next Russian president, even as the government leaders and official media have tried to persuade the Russians that there are no similarities between the societies in the Middle East and Russia, and, thus, there is no way that the rebellions against these other authoritarian regimes can be seen as a threat to Putin’s regime. However, the ways in which the developments in Egypt and Libya were shown on Russian television, together with statements made by both leaders, tell a different story. The fact that Moscow, which now mostly refrains from anti-American propaganda, officially declared that the United States sponsored the turmoil in the Middle East, and plans to do the same in Russia, reveals how deeply these events have impressed the leadership and how much it is afraid of sudden riots in its own country. At the same time, most liberals, with their pessimistic outlook for Russia’s future, believe that a mass insurrection in Russia—as well as in the Middle East—can only bring the deeply anti-Western and anti-democratic forces to power.