In the largest protests Russia has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of people flooded Moscow's streets in recent days demanding fair elections and the end of Vladimir Putin's "corrupt" government. Putin was president from 2000 to 2008. Barred from a third consecutive term, he has spent the last four years serving as prime minister while his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, held the presidency. Putin is widely expected to reclaim the presidency in March elections, a scenario which one opposition leader warns could trigger "Russian Spring" protests. Is that realistic and what might it lead to?
The tide is turning against Putin: "Opposition demonstrations have utterly changed the political atmosphere in Russia," says Gideon Rachman at Business Day. Riled up by Putin's United Russia party's rigged parliamentary election victory in December, marchers are carrying signs reading "Mubarak, Gadhafi, Putin." And it's true — "the end of the Putin era is in sight." Just listening to "the insults hurled at Putin" by Russian protesters and "the intoxicating sense that taboos are being broken is reminiscent of the outbreak of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev."
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Be careful what you wish for: I love seeing Russians protest Putin's "heavy-handedness and corruption," says Raymond Sontag at The American Interest. But if this is the start of a Russian Spring, the protesters could be headed for the same turmoil and violence from which Putin claims to have saved them in the 1990s. In a country like Russia that lacks strong freedom-promoting institutions, it does not necessarily follow that reformers toppling dictators will lead to true democratization. Remember, "such revolution can easily lead... right back to the authoritarianism it sought to displace."
Russians are mad, but not that mad: Obviously, Russians "who take to the streets are upset," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia's Global Politics journal, tells Agence France Presse. But this is no Arab Spring. What Russians "want is more prosperity, more prospects for the future, not a revolution." The tensions tearing apart Arab countries just aren't present in Russia, and as long as the government reacts with restraint, Putin won't be toppled anytime soon.
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