Democracy Lab

Spring Is Over

Has the Russian protest movement fatally weakened Vladimir Putin? Don’t bet on it.

Vladimir Putin has returned to the Kremlin. A lot of commentators are writing about how his regime is doomed for failure. Russia, they say, has been transformed by the new culture of civic activism and public protest that has swept across Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past few months. A few months back, Tom Friedman even compared Russia's demonstrators to the activists of the Arab Spring.

Let me be clear about one thing: The protests were amazing. I applaud the courage and initiative of those who took part, and I wish them the best of luck. Russia needs change. Change would be good.

But even though I sympathize with the protesters' concerns, I don't think we should allow our sentiments to cloud the quality of our analysis. Let's be clear: Do the demonstrators pose any kind of serious threat to the next six years of Vladimir Putin's presidency? Certainly not at the moment. Arab Spring in Russia? Not going to happen.

There are two numbers that you should keep in mind as Putin launches his next six-year term. The first comes from the Levada Center, a respected independent polling agency. The pollsters asked Russians whether they intend to participate in protests with political demands. 81 percent said no (in Russian).

No question about it, Russia is rife with problems. Corruption is all-encompassing. The economy is still heavily dependent on the sale of oil and gas. The political system is based on fraud and nationalist bombast. Surely, you would think, such a rickety construct must be unsustainable.

Actually, the old Soviet Union was arguably a lot more of a mess than the current version of Russia. Central planning was amazingly inefficient. The state spent vast amounts of cash policing its own citizens and keeping them locked inside its borders. Yet the USSR still survived for 69 years. As for Putin, he only became president (for the first time!) 12 years ago. (And while we're at it: Hosni Mubarak remained in office for 30 years.)

Okay, it's true that a rising Russian middle class is demanding accountability. But in stark contrast to the protesters who took to the streets in Cairo and Tunis, virtually none of the demonstrators in Moscow or St. Petersburg wants to dismantle the existing system. Indeed, during the biggest demo on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square last year, speakers who called for revolution were booed off the stage. It's important to understand why. Over the past century, Russians have endured wave after wave of politically motivated violence. In the 1990s, they finally achieved a relatively liberal state -- and along with it came hyperinflation, chaos, and an explosion of organized crime. So it's understandable that no one really has an appetite for starting over.

So what do members of Russia's opposition movement want? First and foremost, an end to corruption (a demand embodied by the anti-graft campaigner Alexei Navalny). They want their votes to count, meaning that they want more of a say in how things are run. And they want to be treated like adults. (Remember, the real starting point of the protest movement was Putin's high-handed declaration in September of 2011 that he had decided to return to the presidency. A few weeks later he was jeered at by spectators at a sporting event.)

The leaders of the protests have said that they want to achieve their aims through non-violent activism. This presupposes, in turn, that the current system is reformable. It would be great if that assumption turned out to be true. But it sounds wildly optimistic.

The system that reigns in Russia today is a highly adaptable form of authoritarianism. The regime is a hybrid of the post-Soviet secret police and organized crime. The current powers-that-be don't need Brezhnev-style 99-percent election results; a simple majority is enough to give them the sheen of legitimacy. They haven't closed the borders, and they show little inclination to waste time legislating morality. (Just the opposite, in fact -- witness the Putin camp's gleeful use of sex in campaign advertising.) And, in stark contrast to the Chinese, they feel comfortable enough in the saddle that they don't see a rationale for unleashing thought police against the internet. Keeping all the national TV stations in state hands works fine.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of sound empirical evidence to suggest that Putin remains popular among many Russians. (Indeed, it's worth noting that Medvedev, long regarded as the regime's stalking horse for "modernizing" reform, has a much lower approval rating.) In stark contrast to the Boris Yeltsin years, the governments of the Putin era have always taken care to keep up social spending, including paying out salaries and pensions on time -- vital in a country where so many people are still dependent on the state.

It's these people who make up a big part of that 81 percent. (See, for example, this piece by Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times, one of the few reporters to pay substantive attention to this slice of the electorate.) The members of this passive majority might not be happy about everything that's going on in Russia, but their deep-seated doubts about the virtues of radical change mean that they can be counted on to keep giving their votes to the incumbent for many years to come. Perhaps the rise of middle-income entrepreneurs will ultimately stymie this bloc, but I wouldn't bet on it any time soon.

All this gives the current regime plenty of safety valves. Until late last year, Russia's rulers weren't prepared to tolerate public demonstrations. The fact that they did for a time evinces a notable degree of tactical flexibility. Now that Putin is back in office, he and his cronies appear to be reverting to old form by cracking down. So far, at least, the protest movement isn't really fighting back.

No one should confuse these shifts in government policy with vacillation or weakness. Over the past 12 years, the authorities and their proxies have frequently resorted to selective but brutal force to safeguard their interests. Quite a few journalists and activists have been killed for crossing those in power. Make no mistake: If anyone tries to challenge the current rulers' control over Russia's major economic assets in a comprehensive way, things will get nasty very fast.

Let's not forget: Putin and his ilk are not German Social Democrats. They aren't waiting philosophically for someone to come along and tell them to leave office. Given Russian history, they are perfectly justified in assuming that losing power will mean losing their ill-gotten gains, their personal freedom, and perhaps their lives as well. I doubt that they can be persuaded to leave through the power of moral suasion.

But you certainly can't blame educated Russians for wanting to choose the latter path. For their sake, I hope it works. I'm just not optimistic.

I earlier mentioned two numbers worth keeping in mind as Putin's second presidency takes shape. The second is the price of oil -- which, I would argue, is a far more likely agent of change than public demonstrations. Even today, after years of putative reform, Russia's economy remains lopsidedly dependent on petroleum. If the price of oil tanks, all of Putin's economic promises to his people go out the window, and that vast silent majority cannot be counted on to remain quiescent.

So how do Putin's prospects look on that front? Right now Brent crude is trading at around $112, near its lowest point for the year. But that's still healthy enough to keep Russia's economy cruising along for the foreseeable future, and there are plenty of analysts who believe that prices can only go up. And as my FP colleague Steve LeVine recently noted, Putin has just made a series of shrewd business deals designed to keep the black gold flowing. Whether you like him or not, Vladimir Vladimirovich is still a formidable player, and he hasn't lost his mojo yet.

Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Lying to Tell the Truth

Saving the world is no excuse for fudging the facts.

Lately I've found myself thinking a lot about the meaning of "advocacy." Greg Mortenson was an advocate. Remember him? He was the founder of the Central Asia Institute, which used donor money to build elementary schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But he got into big trouble when it turned out that parts of the best-selling memoir that launched him on the path to fame were fictional -- along with a lot of the record-keeping at his charity.

Earlier this month, in a long-awaited denouement to the scandal, officials in Montana (where his organization is registered) announced a settlement that ends a year-long investigation into the institute's finances. Under its terms, Mortenson has to leave the group's board of directors and pay back $1 million as restitution for funds he misappropriated for personal use. (One bright spot for Mortenson: earlier this week a judge dismissed a civil suit brought against him by readers angry that the non-fiction book they thought they were buying turned out to be closer to a novel.)

That news, in turn, came just a few days after "Cover the Night," the event that was supposed to be the climax of the Kony2012 campaign launched by the humanitarian group Invisible Children. On the night of April 20, activists around the world were supposed to put up posters and otherwise display their support for efforts to track down and capture Joseph Kony, the insurgent leader guilty of terrorizing East Africa. The now-famous video advertising the cause had urged its millions of viewers to make their opposition to Kony publicly known. But the planned action flopped. Posters were few and far between, social media buzz about the event virtually nil.

Why? Presumably because the video, while proving the extraordinary power of the web to rally people around a cause, got some important facts wrong. Invisible Children's highly simplistic and emotionalized approach (which included Jason Russell, one of the group's founders, showing Kony's picture to his young son) backfired when many Ugandans objected to what they saw as a caricature of their country and its problems. Earlier this month people attending a screening of the Kony2012 video in northern Uganda got so riled up that they ended up pelting the organizers of the event with rocks. (The photo above shows a similar showing of the film in March.)

As the non-event of "Cover the Night" suggests, the resulting storm of controversy appears to have undermined the group's support among its (mostly young and idealistic) followers as well. It certainly doesn't reflect well on your organization when high school students are warning their classmates to give you a wide berth. That one of the group's founders (who apparently suffered a nervous breakdown under the storm of publicity) was later arrested after cavorting in the nude in public probably didn't help much.

Both Mortenson and Kony2012 have their defenders. Soon after the Mortenson scandal broke (courtesy of a lengthy exposé by author John Krakauer and a devastating report by U.S. TV's 60 Minutes), one Pakistani reporter wrote that, whatever his sins, the American had at least succeeded in building some schools in remote regions (even if the number fell short of what Mortenson had claimed to his own donors).

Adam Finck, of Invisible Children, responded to his critics by arguing that Kony2012 succeeded in dramatically raising awareness of the need to capture the fugitive warlord. As he put it, citing the audience of the video, "100 Million People Can't Be Wrong." No question about it: more people now know that there is a bad man named Joseph Kony roaming around in the bush. And, needless to say, you have to know about a problem before you can muster the will to solve it.

This, essentially, is the fundamental argument for advocacy: publicity is the prerequisite of action. Fair enough. But as any marketing expert will tell you, the line between advertising and lying is thin. Is it acceptable to play fast and loose with the truth in the name of a worthy cause?

Some apparently think so. A few weeks back, an American social satirist-cum-journalist named Mike Daisey kicked up a big fuss when it was revealed that he had falsified parts of a hard-hitting report on factory conditions in China for U.S. public radio. The broadcasters, to their credit, published a detailed retraction of the story. But one commentator, Joshua Topolsky, wrote a piece in the Washington Post expressing sympathy with Daisey's actions. Topolsky argued that some manufacturers in China are indeed guilty of the abuses of which they were accused in the report. Daisey, he explained, "had to lie to tell the truth:"

What I'm saying is that sad songs have a way of sticking with us long after we've heard them -- and Daisey found a way to tell the sad, human part of this story. To make it catchy enough to stick, even if it was a lie.

In other words, it's okay to fudge the details as long as you're doing it for the greater good. (Consistent with his philosophy, Topolsky subsequently had to revise his own piece when it turned out that a sin he attributed to Apple had actually been committed by a different company.)

As you may have guessed by now, I don't think Topolsky is right about this. Let's put aside, for the moment, the big philosophical questions about the nature of truth, and focus on a smaller one: Are you really helping your cause by stretching the facts for its sake?

In the case of Mortenson and Kony2012, the answer seems fairly obvious. Most people will reject your agenda as soon as they sense that they're being manipulated in any way to fulfill it. You might have raised general awareness about the need for schools in Pakistan, but those schoolkids in the U.S. who once donated their quarters to Mortenson's charity were undoubtedly deeply disillusioned to learn that he was using some of that money to jet around the world and drive up sales by buying his own books. You attract massive attention to Kony's evil deeds by telling a more dramatic version of the story, but once you get called out on it, you end up empowering the cynics and the naysayers who claim that there's no such thing as real altruism. Sure, they'll say, of course those guys were lying -- they just wanted to line their own pockets. Isn't that what everyone does?

Actually, no. There are plenty of humanitarian organizations in the world that do great work, and even manage to maintain transparency about their goals and spending along the way. And, in fact, they don't really have much of a choice. In today's interconnected world, NGOs are big and important players, and they should expect to be illuminated correspondingly. According to InterAction, the umbrella organization of international NGOs from the U.S., funding for its 190 members runs about $13 billion a year. (And that's just the Americans.) You can argue that this isn't much compared with the heft of an Exxon or a Google, but that may be missing the point. Humanitarians often have a disproportionate impact on policymaking, the terms of political debate, or how aid money from governments is spent. The fact that they work in the pursuit of public goods raises the bar even higher.

So it's not enough to complain that outsiders don't understand you. Most NGOs accept that they bear the burden of public scrutiny -- and, indeed, embrace that reality. Humanitarian organizations have always attracted a certain degree of controversy precisely because their mission often involves shaking us out of our complacency.

What sometimes gets a bit overlooked, however, is the way the Internet raises the stakes. As the Kony2012 video so graphically demonstrated, the web can disseminate and promote emotionally charged messages with superhuman speed. Yet it is also a powerful debunking engine: Claim something that's patently untrue and more often than not you'll quickly find yourself under attack by swarms of fact-checkers.

Charities are a powerful force for good in the world. But it helps the cause if we know that the stories they're telling are true.

STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images