The Russia protests on Tuesday tell Putin that the popular hopes for democracy are alive and kicking. His subtle suppression of dissent only hurts Russia's opportunity to modernize its economy.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo
Twenty-one years ago on June 12, a dream of democracy was born for Russia. That’s when Boris Yeltsin was elected president, declaring independence from a soon-to-fall Soviet Union. Yet on this 21st anniversary, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets, hoping to recapture that lost dream.
Tuesday’s protests were the first against Vladimir Putin since he took back the presidency May 7. He had hoped his victory in an unfair election might end a string of pro-freedom rallies. Instead, he’s being forced to suppress a growing challenge to his rule – and to do so without scaring off the foreign investors he needs to revive an economy in decay.
The protesters and Mr. Putin represent two very different models for Russia. His approach is like China’s: Use strong state power to quell dissent while modernizing the economy. Many Russians go along with that. In fact, one poll finds most of them say they have no say over Russia’s future.
But the urban middle class sees too much corruption and a loss of freedom in Putin’s model. Individual rights are ignored and minorities suppressed. They look to the West, not China, for inspiration.
This conflict in Russia’s soul helps explain why Putin can’t merely shoot the protesters as his ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, does. Instead, his tactics are more subtle, reflecting his days as a Soviet spy.