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.