Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly independent republics seemed to be fertile ground for democracy. Today, only three former Soviet republics have successfully democratized—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—while many have remained saddled with autocratic regimes reminiscent of Soviet-style dictators. Haphazard liberalization of the fledgling republics led to widespread corruption and the seizure of economic and political power by elites, and the vestiges of the authoritarian, statist structure of the Soviet Union limited the development of a robust civil society. Post-Soviet democratization faltered in the face of these challenges, allowing autocrats to gain control of government. Moreover, recent constitutional reforms in Russia by president Vladimir Putin point to a desire to maintain his own personal power. However, these events mask the reality of the situation: dictatorial leadership is becoming increasingly unpopular.
Unrest in the East
In Russia, Putin’s levels of support have fallen to levels unseen since protests in the aftermath of his 2012 reelection. General displeasure with austerity measures and a slowing economy had chipped away at his approval rate, but recent developments have accelerated its decline, from constitutional amendments that would allow him to remain in power to his downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic.
These simmering frustrations have boiled over into widespread protests in Russia’s easternmost province as a popular local politician, Sergei Furgal, elected without the backing of the Kremlin was arrested in July. The outpouring of grassroots support for Furgal, the former regional governor associated with an opposition party, has shaken Putin, leading him to dispatch police to quell the protests. Despite the Kremlin’s installation of an interim governor and use of police brutality in an attempt to quash the protests, uprisings have continued unabated since July. It is difficult for the Kremlin to project its power across the entire country, and locals have rallied against what they perceive to be an overstepping of the government’s bounds. The protests have escalated from merely asking for the release of Furgal to demanding Putin’s own resignation and have attracted popular opposition leaders, like Alexei Navalny.
These recent protests can be connected with popular frustration with Putin’s rule. Having circumvented the constitution in 2012 by running for president again after serving one term as prime minister, Putin returned to Russia’s highest office amid protests that called into question the legitimacy of his election. Today’s demonstrations mirror much of what previous protests demanded: freer and fairer elections, rule of law, and improved personal liberties, fundamentals of functioning democracies. The presence of an organic and popular movement for a more democratic system bodes well for the development of Russian civil society, which has been lacking since the fall of the Soviet Union. With increased political awareness, Russian citizens are focused on the reforms necessary to limit the power of autocratic leaders.
The fact that protesters are organically coming out to call for reform places Putin in a bind; either cave to popular demand and undermine his own power or violently suppress the protests and risk inciting more backlash. Historically, Putin has been rather heavy-handed with protesters, and that has not changed with these recent developments. Protesters have been beaten and jailed, while opposition leaders have been threatened, intimidated, and in the case of Navalny, poisoned. Navalny, a longtime critic of Putin’s, lent an air of credibility to the protests this summer, and his poisoning drew international attention to the issue. Having been an outspoken dissident in Russia, Navalny has a history of being detained, jailed, and attacked by Putin and his allies and has been the face of opposition to Putin. His involvement in these protests and the retribution from the Putin regime has further inflamed the tensions bubbling up in Russia.
Though normally calculated and composed, the pandemic and these protests have shown the limited reach of Putin’s power. After the 2012 protests, he shored up support with the invasion of the Crimean peninsula, but with no easy way to stoke nationalist fervor during the pandemic, Putin has little to distract the Russian people with. Trying to remove Navalny from the larger picture surrounding these protests illustrates that he has few options to stymie the growing discontent. Given that the protests have no clear leadership structure, the attack on Navalny and his subsequent recovery have merely added to national unease. While protests remain focused on local issues, some elites in Russia have become more concerned with the lengths the Kremlin will go to quash discontent after learning of the poisoning. This could undermine Putin’s support among the privileged classes and threaten his power.
The Kremlin’s decision-making has impacts that reach far beyond Russian borders. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia took the lead as the dominant power in Eastern Europe and exerts much influence over its former Soviety neighbors. These states—often led by strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko—look to Russia as a model and for support. The choices Putin’s government makes will inform other protesters in Russia and the countries that have followed his authoritarian model. This is already obvious in Belarus, where widespread protests against the reelection of Lukashenko in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent have erupted. Faced with popular discontent, student demonstrations, and an impending labor strike, Lukashenko has reached out to Putin for financial and tactical support, but it is unclear how active a role Russia will take in the conflict. Belarusians can look to the Kremlin’s response to its own political turmoil as indicative of the likeliest answer from their own government.
If Putin’s power weakens in the face of popular unrest, opposition forces in other former Soviet states may be encouraged to force the issue on authoritarianism and push for democratization. As political consciousness and demands for more transparent governance in Russia grow, its satellite states may be emboldened to launch their own protests. If Putin fails to contain the growing discontent with his government, other autocrats in Eastern Europe should expect increased demands for freedoms and democracy, perhaps reversing the global backsliding of democracy by creating new ground in which it may flourish. These protests are reminiscent of the grassroots uprisings of the Arab Spring with citizens taking to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with existing dictatorial regimes. Perhaps these demonstrations will lead Eastern Europe down a similar path toward democracy, serving as a beacon of hope for the spread of global democracy.