As the Russian protest movement expands and radicalizes in the lead-up to the March 4 presidential election, the key question is not whether Vladimir Putin -- and Putinism -- will survive. They will not. Apart from its so obviously dysfunctional political system, Russia is facing growing problems of enormous complexity -- economic, social, demographic, ethnic -- that are impossible to solve within the rigid confines of neo-authoritarian "sovereign democracy" (which, as my Russian friends like to point out, is as to "democracy" as "electric chair" is to "chair"). Inextricably tied to Putinism, corruption, which is likely the worst in Russia's long history, is reaching the level of paralyzing key economic and social institutions.
There is also a kind of historical inevitability here. Indeed, the dynamics of Russia's latest breakthrough to post-authoritarian democratization appear to be very similar to the ones that drove Southern Europe (Greece, Portugal, and Spain) in the 1970s and the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan) in the 1980s. And after a period of record economic performance, a hugely expanded global middle class is no longer content to enjoy unprecedented personal freedom and prosperity -- its members want political liberty and a say in governing their countries. This is where Russia finds itself today.
To better understand this new, rising social movement, I traversed Russia from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad -- some 4,600 miles and nine time zones, stopping in Irkutsk, Moscow, and St. Petersburg in between -- and interviewed leaders of civil society movements and organizations. The conversations were exceptional, revealing a deep and real dissatisfaction with political and social life in Russia today.
Yet quite apart from all the obvious and increasingly deadening flaws that have emerged under Putin, his regime's fatal deficiency is moral, even existential. For the Russian Internet generation that has lead the protests, guided by Facebook and inspired by LiveJournal blogs, a generation whose members were young children or in their early teens when the Soviet Union collapsed, it is an inconceivable existential monstrosity, an utterly bizarre anachronism, for a great and proud European nation to have someone -- anyone -- in power for 24 years (which is what many think Putin aspires to if "reelected" for two six-year terms). This is six years longer than Brezhnev and only a few years short of Stalin. "You've got to be kidding!" and "This sucks!" may not be among the categories of political science, but they are fair representations of the growing sentiment on Russian blogs and Facebook pages.
Sovereign democracy is a daily offense to the dignity of these young men and women for whom the proverbial "chaos of the 1990s" is at best a distant rumor. They compare themselves not to their (mostly) post-Soviet parents -- and even less so to their (mostly) Soviet grandparents -- but to their contemporaries in prosperous, democratic countries in Europe and the United States. The key legitimizing factor of Putinism -- "We're better off than in the 1990s" -- is eroding almost daily.
The public opinion polls are unambiguous: Putin has lost Moscow, and he has lost the intelligentsia. This means he has also lost the country: No Russian regime in history has survived these losses, though some managed to linger, agonizing, for several years. Although the end may come as early as this spring and summer, following inevitable national protests once Putin is elected in March, we can almost certainly bet that Putin will not serve out his first six-year term (which would end in 2018) and that absolutely without doubt he won't see out a second.
Thus the truly important question is what happens after Putinism is overthrown. It has been clear for a while that the elites are at a loss. This past July, Igor Yurgens, an advisor to President Dmitry Medvedev and the head of a think tank of which Medvedev is chairman of the board, told the leading political and economic Profil magazine that the elite -- both the government and opposition -- are at their wits' end. "They've lost control of the situation," Yurgens put it. Last July, this may have been discounted as an alarmist exaggeration by a liberal politician desperately wishing for Medvedev to become an independent political figure. Today it seems quite realistic -- after the moral revulsion over the results of the Dec. 4 election that followed the insult of Putin's September announcement that the "switch" with Medvedev had been preplanned four years ago (implying that the Medvedev rhetoric of "modernization" was purely for show).