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04 December 2023

Russia still far from its 'Arab Spring': analysts


Russia is seeing a significant political awakening amid mass protests against the rule of Vladimir Putin but is unlikely to witness an Arab Spring-style uprising to oust him from power, analysts say.

Nevertheless, Putin will face a rocky ride in the years to come if he turns a deaf ear to the protestors' demands after his expected return to the Kremlin following March 4 presidential elections.

The scale of rallies and opposition mobilisation -- unprecedented since Putin's rise to power -- are not like the social explosions in Tunisia and Egypt where permanent protest rallies were held despite violence and repression.

"People who take to the streets are upset, but overall what they want is more prosperity, more prospects for the future, not a revolution," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Politics journal.

"There are not the tensions that existed in Arab countries and the government reacts with more restraint," he said.

Tens of thousands of protestors are due to take to the streets of Moscow on Saturday for the third mass rally within two months against Putin's rule sparked by claims of fraud in parliamentary elections.

But the route of the protest march, the first such mass action to be held by the opposition since the last protest back on December 24, has been agreed with the municipal authorities in advance .

Polls show that the Russians' protest mood is still quite passive, despite growing dissent and aspiration for change.

According to a poll carried out in late December by the Levada Institute, 44 percent of respondents supported the demonstrations, but only four percent were "ready" and 11 percent "almost ready" to take to the streets.

The tens of thousands of Russians who took to the streets in Moscow twice in December are chiefly middle class people whose more comfortable lifestyles has exposed them to new ideas through foreign travel and the Internet.

"In Egypt, the middle class only initiated a movement that was then carried on by other layers of society, namely by the most impoverished," said Mazen Abbas, a correspondent of the Dubai-based television Al-Arabiya in Moscow and the president of the Arab Migrants Association of Russia.

"The situation in Russia is completely different. Only the middle class goes to demonstrations," he said.

"Russia's 'managed democracy' is definitely not the dictatorship that existed 30 or 40 years ago. It is still possible to express discontent," Abbas added.

Nonetheless, the Kremlin faces a real challenge, said Boris Dolgov of the Centre for Arabic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"All the revolutions in Russia were preceded by demonstrations ... and there are serious social and economic problems in Russia as well as high crime rates," he said.

"Will there be an explosion? That will largely depend on what the authorities will do."

The Russian government's reaction to the political challenge was different from that of the deposed Arab regimes.

Instead of using force against protesters, the authorities allowed the mass protests to go ahead after they were given official permission.

But this has not stopped the Kremlin from carrying out a smear campaign against the opposition, accusing it of being financed from the United States.

The Russian authorities, keen to undermine the nascent protest movement, portray opposition activists as dangerous revolutionaries inspired by chaos in the Arab countries.

"Are the protesters' leaders ready to proclaim that their own country is totally deprived of political and legal legitimacy and therefore of its sovereignty?" said Valery Zorkin, the president of the Constitutional Court.

"Are they ready to call on (Western) 'enemies' to support the creation of a 'new State' in Russia based on the Libyan model?" he wrote in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper, in a column entitled "Russia: evolution towards the law or chaos."