With the next Russian presidential elections coming up in 2018, the question whether the democratic revolutions that swept the region over the past decades will have an impact on Russian political life is more relevant than ever. As these revolutions started to pose a direct threat to the Russian leadership, the Kremlin has undertaken considerable effort to reassert and consolidate its own power. However, the revolutionary experiences across the region have shown that the value and impact of these revolutions lies not in their ability to bring about an immediate political regime change, but rather in their lasting effect on the development of civil society and a steady rise in public awareness, which will inevitably open up the way to further democratization.
At present, Putin’s official support rating has reached its historical maximum and now exceeds 86%. At the same time, in April and June 2017 the biggest anti-corruption demonstrations since Bolotnaya took place in Moscow and other major Russian cities. The Russian media kept remarkably silent about the protests and none of the state-backed channels or websites mentioned the tens of thousands of participants and thousands of arrests. It was perhaps a reference to these events when Putin publicly spoke of the threat of a Russian ‘orange revolution’. Apparently, the shadow of recent revolutions in neighbouring countries continues to haunt the Kremlin, with Ukraine being the ‘bad example’ par excellence.
Regardless of their success or failure, the two waves of revolutions in post-Soviet countries – the colour revolutions of the early 2000’s and the more recent square revolutions, have had significant impact in the area. Leading to the rise of a prolific civil societies across post-Soviet countries, they destabilized the post-Soviet space, making Russia a possible candidate for the next revolution. In response to this threat, the Kremlin came up with an own sharply formulated perspective. Both revolutionary waves are viewed as two subsequent stages of the same process by the Kremlin, set in motion and continuously fuelled by the Western actors in their subversive effort to undermine Russian sovereignty.i
It was after the Orange Revolution (2004) that the Russian leadership began to systematically work at formulating a viable ideology, which would become a Russian alternative to the Western liberal democracy model.ii It came to be embodied in the so-called Sovereign Democracy doctrine that among other things implied the creation of a state controlled hierarchical civil society capable of substituting independent NGOs and deconstruction of existing civil society networks.iii
The launch of Sovereign Democracy, which was a direct consequence of colour revolutions in Russia’s ‘near abroad’iv, heralded a new era of ideologization in Russia. It has been gaining momentum ever since as the government started claiming more and more control over virtually every sphere of public life and peaked when the Revolution of Dignity broke out in Ukraine in 2014. By that time, most of the NGOs had perished or become obsolete and a new force arose behind the mass protests from Cairo to Kyiv. Square revolutions also dubbed ‘facebook revolutions’, have shown just how important social media now are. Suddenly, it became possible for anyone to reach out to virtually everyone, without a need for a specific organisational framework or distinct leadership like it was during the colour revolutions, which now came to be regarded as naïve and superficial. The square revolutions were marked by much greater public involvement and a general disillusionment with politicians. However, these very traits that made square revolutions such a powerful force came at a cost of losing control over the situation - for the governments as well as the protesters themselves.
The Russian leadership has consistently framed the revolutions happening on its very doorstep as threatening and subversive. By doing so, the Russian political elites have been able to claim more authority, more resources and more coercive power in order to suppress a threat of such revolution breaking out in Russia. Over the past few years, the Kremlin has put huge effort into an all-encompassing propaganda campaign and cases of political repression have become more frequent. This tendency will most probably amplify even more in the run up to the 2018 presidential elections, as according to Russian opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky the one and only objective for the ruling political elite is to secure its own power by any means.
It is disputable whether an actual revolution is likely to break out in Russia and what effect it could possibly have. However, there might not necessarily be a need for it as the colour and square revolutions have already had an impact, which is profound, long lasting and will not just blow over if the authoritarian backlash is strong enough. Intensified propaganda and political repression in modern day Russia bear testimony to the fact that the changes have been set in motion. The democratic revolutions of the past two decades brought about a mental shift, which made civic activism and a strife towards more democratic rights and freedoms a norm that will eventually be established.
i Konstantin Sivkov. (2013) “’Tsvetnoi’ scenarii dla Rossii.” Voyenno-promyshlennyi kurjer 13(481).
ii Konstantin Sivkov. (2013) “’Tsvetnoi’ scenarii dla Rossii.” Voyenno-promyshlennyi kurjer 13(481): 1.
iii Alexander Cooley. (2010) “These Colors May Run: The Backlash against the US-Backed ‘Democratic Revolutions’ in Eurasia.” In After the Color Revolutions: Political Change and Democracy Promotion in Eurasia, edited by Cory Welt and Alexander Schmemann: 64. Washington: PONARS Eurasia; Jeanne Wilson. (2010) “The Legacy of the Color Revolutions for Russian Politics and Foreign Policy.” Problems of Post-Communism 57(2): 26; Philipp Casula. (2013) “Sovereign Democracy, Populism and Depoliticization in Russia: Power and Discourse during Putin’s First Presidency.” Problems of Post-Communism 60(3): 3.
iv Jeanne Wilson. (2010) “The Legacy of the Color Revolutions for Russian Politics and Foreign Policy.” Problems of Post-Communism 57(2): 22.
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