The Maidan on the Tahrir Square is Bad News for Putin

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 27

Russian mainstream media provides extensive coverage of the unfolding revolution in the streets of Cairo, in contrast with China where the word Egypt is banned from the news and blocked in the Internet. Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, is not known for his surfing skills but is a firm believer in TV-power, so he has to reflect on the impact of these images on his own electorate. The non-stop demonstration on Tahrir Square inevitably brings back the memory of the huge crowds in the center of Kyiv in November 2004 that enriched the Russian political vocabulary with the term “maidan.”  Determined political efforts have been invested by Moscow in proving the futility and senselessness of the “Orange Revolution,” and the election of Viktor Yanukovych as the President of Ukraine in January 2010 appeared to mark the fin de siecle of public uprisings.

The unexpected implosion of the “enlightened” authoritarian regime in Tunis has unleashed a new wave of revolutions, and now Egypt is testing –and proving– its liberating energy (Vedomosti, February 4). Millions of Russian who have relaxed at Egyptian resorts, and thousands that refuse to interrupt their vacations despite the turmoil, know first-hand that the social dynamics in the Middle East is very different from the still prevalent apathy in Russia (, February 4; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 2). Some of these differences, however, give Putin new reasons to worry about the durability of his carefully controlled “stability” (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 2).

Perhaps the most obvious difference, which is emphasized by many Russian –as well as Western– commentators, is the impact of the Islamic factor, which could turn out to be decisive in Cairo but was definitely absent in Kyiv (Novaya Gazeta, February 1). In Moscow, however, the growing public discontent is strongly influenced by the previously latent ethnic tensions that manifested themselves with shocking force in the ugly rally on the Manezhnaya Square last December. Putin may think that he knows how to control the aggressive nationalism aimed primarily at the shuttle-traders from the North Caucasus and gastarbeiders from Central Asia, but every terrorist attack, or even alert, in Moscow adds to fears and incites pogroms. Football fans are turning into an angry political force, and the authorities are incapable of taming this “patriotism.”

Another unique feature of the Tahrir stand-off is the absence of leadership, while the maidan in Kyiv was steered and inspired, as were most classical revolutions, by charismatic leaders. Putin has taken great care to decapitate the potential opposition by corrupting some opinion-makers and discrediting others, or for instance by keeping Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind bars and punishing Boris Nemtsov for his defiance (The New Times, January 17). Now Putin has to recognize that even a leaderless crowd can show resolution and courage to push the former “national leader” into a no-win corner. An important pre-condition to this self-organization is the social composition of the revolutionary camp: Egypt is shaken not by an explosion of rage among its poorest millions but by an uprising of the lower-middle class that is fed up with the corruption of the ruling bureaucracy. Minsk did not have enough of this “combustive material,” so Alyaksandr Lukashenka managed to disperse the crowd of desperate opposition last December (, January 24). Moscow, however, is a huge mega polis that could easily field an army of tens of thousands of discontented citizens who would take turns at besieging the Kremlin for weeks.

What the crises in Egypt and Tunisia have demonstrated convincingly is that the outcome of a protracted confrontation could be determined by the attitude of the army, which was essentially absent from the streets in most of the “color revolutions” in the 2000’s. Putin has prioritized investments into strengthening the police and various special crowd-control units like OMON, comprised of professionals toughened by tours of duty in Chechnya. Putin cannot, however, count on the loyalty of the army, since the ongoing reforms have demoralized the top brass, antagonized the officer corps and incapacitated the combat units manned by poorly trained conscripts drafted for 12 months (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 17). The military are traditionally sensitive to external interference but the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are clearly home-made, so that the US and the EU are at loss about denying support to their trusted allies who were never bothered by democratic values (Ogonyok, February 7).

Another unique feature of the spreading revolutionary fever in the Middle East is the disconnect of its culmination from elections. Most of the successful or failed “color revolutions” –from Belgrade in October 2000 to Chisinau in April 2009– were triggered by outrage against often crudely manipulated elections, and the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan in April 2010 appeared to be an exception that proves that rule. In Egypt, however, the tightly controlled parliamentary elections were held in November and December 2010 and saw very little disturbance (Ekspert, February 7). It was, apparently, the profound but hidden dissatisfaction with the lack of any political competition in these elections that has deepened the reservoir of discontent among the urban educated classes, and the Tunisian “trigger” breached the seemingly solid dam of one-party rule. Putin’s plan for the 2011-2012 election cycle is not that different from Mubarak’s plan as of early 2010, and is quite probably as perfectly implementable, but the post-election crisis is distinctly in the making.

Revolutions tend to come in series as one breakthrough gives an encouraging lesson to the opposition in every quasi-democratic system; the rulers, to the contrary, show little inclination to learn from one another’s failures as each considers his grasp on power infallible. Putin is no different from any self-made autocrat who believes that simple tricks with corrupting the society and distorting the economy make it possible to cheat history (Vedomosti, February 4). The suspicion that the time may be up does not enter his calculations on the best timing for reshuffling the court of billionaire-lackeys and compliant technocrats and reasserting his supremacy. The maidan in Kyiv was unique in leaving the power-holders an option for a dignified exit and a chance for a comeback, but Putin believes that compromises are for weaklings.