A wave of anti-government protests in Russia in late 2011 has rocked its political establishment. United in anger at President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to cede his post to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as at evidence of electoral fraud in recent legislative elections, up to 100,000 Russians gathered on 24 December to take part in some of the country's largest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet those who expect Russia to follow the path of Arab revolutions are likely to be disappointed.
The protests may herald a period of greater instability, but they are unlikely to prevent Putin's return to the presidency in March 2012 or to substantially transform Russia's political regime, which is democratic in form but authoritarian in essence. The most that the protesters could realistically achieve is to impose greater accountability on Russia's political elite, who have reaped huge economic and political rewards from the past decade of growth.
A key reason for the protests was Medvedev's announcement on 24 September that he would not seek a second term and was proposing that Putin, his patron, should retake the job. Putin in turn declared his intention to appoint Medvedev as prime minister.
Putin's return to the presidency had been predicted since he stepped down in 2008 after serving two four-year terms. Few believed that Medvedev enjoyed real power as president. But no one could have anticipated the public outcry provoked by their planned role swap.
The proposed new arrangement undermined the success of the Medvedev-Putin political mix. With his modernising agenda, Medvedev appealed to an increasingly vocal younger generation and the new middle class, while Putin continued to enjoy support among the powerful bureaucracy and leaders of large state-controlled businesses, who were content with the status quo. Their combined popularity was only possible as long as there was still hope among Medvedev's supporters that sooner or later he would be able to implement his agenda and bring about real political and economic liberalisation. The swap deal has put an end to these hopes. Instead, there is a widespread perception that Putin's return for one or even two six-year terms will herald a period of economic stagnation reminiscent of the Brezhnev era.
The change in the public mood, particularly among Medvedev's disillusioned supporters, reverberated throughout Russia's blogosphere and social networks, and was reflected in the approval ratings of the ruling elite. Within days of the announcement, Putin's ratings reached a historic low, dipping below 60%, particularly in large cities. These had remained above 70% throughout his presidency and premiership, during which time he was credited with steering the country through the 2008-09 financial crisis. GDP contracted by 8% in 2009 before recovering in 2010 and expanding by 4% in 2011.