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Are There Lessons to Be Learned for Russia From the Events in Tunisia?

Kremlin and Old Saint Basil'sThe last week's events in Tunisia, during which President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in power for 23 years, fled from the first popular uprising in an Arab country, have been closely watched in the Arab world. But they have also sparked debate and speculation in Russia on whether there could be lessons from Tunisia for Russia's ruling tandem and the Russian opposition. Are Putin and Medvedev in real danger of following in Ben Ali's steps? Is the level of social and political discontent in Russia so high as to provoke an uprising? Is the regime's social base fraying and narrowing?

Most observers in Moscow have focused on the factors that fueled the upheaval in Tunisia, which to some extent can or could be found in today's Russia: widespread popular revulsion at the regime's corruption; resentment at restrictions on political freedoms ­ media censorship and manipulated elections; large disparities in income levels; the narrowing of the ruling elite's social foundations and widening fissures in the elite; the incompetence and brutality of the police, as well as the government's mistakes, such as focusing too much on perceived but false threats (Islamic extremists in Tunisia, the radical liberals in Russia).

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said he hoped that Russia would follow Tunisia's example after many years of Vladimir Putin's iron-fisted rule, since the two countries, in his view, have much in common. Communist State Duma Deputy Valeria Rashkin said that Russia and Tunisia share "social stratification, unemployment and corruption."

It is also interesting that the upheaval in distant Tunisia has been seized upon by members of president Medvedev's inner circle to intensify their campaign against Putin's return to the presidency in 2012. Igor Yurgens, the president of the Institute for Contemporary Development (INSOR) and an informal advisor to Medvedev, in an all-bets-are-off interview with Bloomberg basically warned Putin that an attempt to return to the Kremlin, edging president Medvedev out of office, might lead to popular unrest as in Tunisia, because, as Yurgens put it: "People are getting tired of seeing Putin's face."

Are Putin and Medvedev in real danger of following in Ben Ali's steps? Is the level of social and political discontent in Russia so high as to provoke an uprising? Is the regime's social base fraying and narrowing? Are there fissures in the elite, as in Tunisia, between the army and the security services? Could a popular uprising in Russia be sparked by an isolated event of social or political injustice? Recent polls in Russia indicate that, far from joining an uprising, a significant portion of Russian society says it would support a crackdown to maintain order. Is that a sufficient barrier against the kind of spontaneous upheaval we saw in Tunisia, or can popular moods shift quickly and unpredictably?

Are the Russian opposition's hopes justified? Why is Medvedev's circle pushing the "Tunisia scenario" to weaken and discredit Putin? What is there to be gained for Russia in exacerbating the divisions in the elites that are already all too evident? Could the potential for political instability in the tandem's regime be exploited by a challenger to the current order from the outside?

Patrick Armstrong, Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada:

The chance of a Tunisian scenario in Russia is somewhere less than zero. The conditions simply do not exist.

The popular revolt in Tunisia ­ I assume it was not a phony revolution like the "Orange Revolution" or the "Rose Revolution," or the now-forgotten "Tulip Revolution" ­ was the result of the public's revulsion at years of hopelessness and stagnation.

In Russia, innumerable polls, over many years ­ see, for example, Levada data ­ show that Russians appreciate the steady improvement of their own living conditions and give the government a great deal of credit for it. They show no naive belief that everything is wonderful, but they do show a steady increase in optimism (or reduction in pessimism) for the future and improvement of present circumstances. The duumvirate is popular ­ most governments would love to have consistent 60 to 70 percent support in difficult times. The Levada data is especially useful because, with ten to 15 years of results for a given question, one can make direct comparisons and observe trends. Other polling organizations show the same trends.

In short, the Putin team has generally provided the things that people elect governments for. Thus, the underlying conditions that sparked the Tunisian revolt do not exist in Russia. Observers who take the effort to analyze polling data rather than lazily phone up names on the Rolodex their predecessors bequeathed them would understand this.

But, nonetheless, those who predicted the collapse of the "Putin system" with the Kushchevskaya massacre, last summer's peat bog fires, the expected collapse of the Russian economy in the global financial crisis, riots in Vladivostok, Beslan, the "Orange Revolution," the Kursk submarine sinking, the debt crisis, the apartment bombings, the "virtual economy" (I keep a file of this stuff), will quarry the "Tunisian parallel" for indicators. Until the next thing pops up ­ same story, new indicators.

I am dumfounded by the endless speculation on how Putin and Medvedev are struggling under the blankets and that Putin will re-appear as president. If Putin had wanted a third (and fourth and fifth) term, all he had to do was arrange for one little clause in the Constitution to be changed. And no one can doubt that he could have, and many wanted him to. But he didn't. Why would he go through this elaborate charade to get back?

Perhaps he and Medvedev are part of the same team, carrying out the same program ­ as they say they are. But what do they know?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

The political upheaval in Tunisia, which some commentators of a liberal bent have already dubbed "the Jasmine Revolution," is not yet over and may yield an outcome which will severely disappoint the liberal camp. Instead of a flowery revolution one might see the installation in Tunisia of yet another extremist regime, and the accompanying aroma might be not the rich redolence of jasmine flowers, but the acrid odor of high explosives.

The above observation is necessary to cool certain excitable heads who imagine parallels between Russia and Tunisia and hope to see the events in the Mediterranean as harbingers of fervently desired upheaval in the hyperborean regions of the planet. Tunisia will very probably change. But the probability of the "new Tunisia" becoming a liberal democracy is realistically considered as fairly low. An expansion of the arc of extremism or the appearance of a failed state directly to the south of Sicily seems more likely at this moment.

There is another peculiarity in the panorama of Russian political opposition: the appearance of very strange bedfellows indeed. Russian liberals join communists who venerate Stalin in their vitriol against the Russian government. A group called the "Other Russia," allegedly ultra "pro-Western," is reported to join the demonstrations of Russian chauvinists, whose right hand side is contiguous with neo-Nazis. If these images are accurate, one wonders to what extent Russian "liberals" might deserve the designation of such an honored and venerable title.

One shared premise by the communists and the "liberals" is that Russia is in the grip of "oppression" and of a "deepening social and economic crisis." These attributions are mostly ad-hoc and do not match the real experience of the majority of Russians. In effect, the Russian average citizen has experienced a steady improvement in social well-being since the failure of liberal "shock therapy" 20 years ago. Home ownership is growing and the expansion of car ownership is extraordinary. The country has weathered successfully the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Pensions and other social expenditures have been growing at rates ahead of inflation. Unemployment and inflation are dropping; GDP is growing steadily year-on-year. Millions of Russians freely travel abroad for pleasure or business. Visa-free travel is enabled with such respected democracies as Israel. There is unfettered access to domestic and foreign media, including those highly critical of the government. Radio Liberty (a U.S.-sponsored broadcaster) has offices in Moscow and via the Internet Russians can send and receive uncensored information about any topic.

The above are not the attributes of an oppressive society in crisis. Perhaps most telling is the complete lack of political defectors from modern Russia (compare with the Soviet Union) and the decline of the "fourth wave" (economic) emigration from Russia.

Thus, notwithstanding the "liberal" and communist allegations, Russia in fact is not like Tunisia.

Russia definitely has continuing problems with corruption, incomes disparity, and bad governance. To this one needs to add the emerging threat of inter-ethnic confrontation, a legacy of misguided policies established as far back as the 1920s, in Soviet times. In effect, all present Russian social problems are demonstrably the legacy of failed Soviet policies and practices and of the liberal shock-therapy of the 1990s.

How do the present-day liberals and communists of Russia imagine leveraging the abovementioned problems, traceable to their own original policies, into a return to political power?

Those who suppose a propagation of the Tunisian political dynamics into Russia should expect an extremist, rather than a liberal outcome in Russia, should their expectations become a surprising and unhappy reality.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and World Russia Forum in Washington, Washington, DC:

Recent turmoil in Tunisia and other Arab countries calls for at least two fairly self-evident conclusions, one of a global nature, the other specifically concerning Russia.

Under several recent administrations and particularly under Gorge W. Bush, America assumed the mission of spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world in the belief that it is the best cure for all or almost all of the world's problems.

The irony of the current moment in history apparently is that democratic elections in the wake of political upheavals in the Middle East might bring to power Hamas/Hezbollah-style Islamist radicals. The U.S.-led democratization of Afghanistan has resulted in a 40-times increase in drug production. Human endeavor never yields the results one desires at the outset of an undertaking, but rarely with the same disastrous consequences as the spreading of freedom and democracy to all nations regardless of their history, religion, culture, the people's mentality, and ingrained ways of life.

This general rule fully applies to Russia. Here, events in Tunisia revived, rather incredibly, talk of a possible revolution of the masses fed up with the iniquities of the current political, economic, and social setup. The wishful thinking among the radical liberal opposition here is that it might lead this revolt of the masses and wrest power from the Putin regime.

Truly, it takes an amazing lack of all sense of humor and proportion to believe in such a scenario. One should honestly admit that the said opposition presently has no credible leaders who could win even the freest and most democratic elections or run the country in case of their miraculous victory.

Therefore, the most likely result of a hypothetical major upheaval involving popular unrest in Russia would be a Red-Brown coalition, an alliance of communists and other left-wingers with outright nationalists. The results of such a development would be highly unpredictable and catastrophic both for Russia and the world. The events in Tunisia would seem like a picnic then: unlike Tunisia, Russia is still a major nuclear power.

Whatever can be said about the present sad state of the Russian democracy, this country, in all of its 1,000 plus years of existence, has never been as free as it is now.

Also, like it or not, all credible public opinion polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Russian people support the current regime and that far from joining an uprising, they would rather support a merciless police crackdown to maintain order. So, where does that leave the West with its policy on Russia?

In the early 1990s the West had a historic chance to repeat the earlier successful experiences in post-Second World War Germany and Japan, making Russia a strategic ally. As we all know, unfortunately, this opportunity was squandered by the Bill Clinton and Bush administrations. However, for all its deficiencies, the present Putin ­ Medvedev "tandemocracy" is by no means the worst scenario for Russia at this period in its history. They are infinitely preferable to the communists and nationalists seizing power on the wave of popular discontent, leading the country up yet another blind alley.

For these reasons, if the West is indeed serious about helping Russia's democratic development, it should try to engage Russia as it is now in all possible directions: in politics, the military, business, science, education, culture, etc.

There is no doubt that in the coming elections the choice will most likely be between Vladimir Putin, seen in the West as an autocratic ruler, and the more liberal-sounding and Western-leaning Medvedev.

The West obviously prefers Medvedev, so it would seem pretty logical to help him succeed in his drive for modernizing the country's economy, thus making a real success of his years in office. After listening to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's statements during his recent meeting with Medvedev, one might conclude that the Terminator understands this better than anyone in Washington.

As for the liberal opposition, in the people's minds it still carries the blame for the disastrous years of the late 1990s and it is doubtful that they can increase their single digit rating by yelling "Down with the Kremlin!" and trying to lead Tunisia-style popular revolt.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian language, history and culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

There is not really much in common between Russia and Tunisia, and searching for parallels between these two states is generally a senseless activity. It is too early to judge the outcome of the events in Tunisia. The Islamic factor, which is at this moment not very obvious, may rear up later and we will see the real results of a transition of power in this predominantly Muslim and Arab country.

The West and Russian liberals may soon be shocked by new rhetoric pouring out of Tunisia with words like "the African revolution commences," "the global anti-capitalist revolution," "the revolt against inhuman globalization imposed on the Arab world" or something similar. The other option is that in the results of these events one ruling clan may simply be replaced by another, while everything remains the same for the majority of Tunisia's people. The so-called "Jasmine Revolution" will be stolen by the elite, as has happened many times and in many countries before.

In their verbal attacks on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the official and unofficial advisers to President Dmitry Medvedev (Yurgens, Arkady Dvorkovich) are pursuing not so much the improvement of the well-being of Russians as they are trying to ensure their personal positions in the future, and this is quite obvious. This has been understood by the majority of the Russian people already. It is really difficult to recall anything realistic or useful that was recently said by Yurgens (Russia joining NATO, and etc.). Dvorkovich's most recent suggestions to stop grants to successfully studying students is just another example of how far he is from reality and how badly he knows the country, the president of which he is trying to advise. This is nothing new in terms of the Russian liberals who are terribly far from the lives and needs of real people.

A popular uprising in Russia is currently an impossibility for many reasons, the most important of which is the lack of an alternative to the current regime. There is no real opposition in Russia and those people that the West sometimes views as such are unlikely to be supported by the majority of Russians, who see so-called "oppositioners" more like the Boris Yeltsin-era crooks that failed to find their way to the current regime's feeding trough. Instead, Russian liberals are trying to find a new feeding trough abroad, primarily in Washington where that dream "to get rid of Putin" has not been abandoned by some people completely. However, everything on the so-called "liberal" side of the political spectrum looks like a return to the Yeltsin times and is unlikely to find support among any sizable number of Russians.

The Communist Party ­ the only potential opposition ­ is failing to come up with its own comprehensive and alternative plan for Russia, and it obviously lacks capable leadership.

At the same time the tandem and ruling elite in Russia should see that the regime's social base is actually narrowing, and this trend has been intensifying since 2008. This is so because of the growing failure of the model of capitalism chosen for Russia in the early 1990s. This reality becomes more and more evident today. The upcoming reform of the law enforcement and the absolutely awful idea of renaming the "militia" the "police," as well as the even more horrifying reform of education will only further intensify a negative trend in the social base's support for the regime. Putin's majority may come under serious threat if the current negative trend continues to develop further.

Russia certainly does not need another revolution and should avoid such an option. However, it needs a serious discussion within society and development of a comprehensive plan of what the country should look like in the foreseeable future, as well as what has to be done on every level to accomplish this goal. An honest analysis of the experience of the past 20 years should serve as a starting point for this work. Twenty years is a long enough period to understand what works and what does not work in Russia today.

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