In the wake of Russia’s fixed parliamentary elections, something extraordinary happened: tens of thousands of Russians poured into the Moscow streets in sub-zero weather to challenge Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who last weekend won a third presidential term in a dubious election. Putin led Russia for over a decade and his tenure in office was marked by rampant corruption, crony capitalism, stagnation and increasing economic inequality. He spent the last decade preying on Russians’ fears of returning to the turbulent days of the 1990s and he has used that fear to consolidate political and economic power around himself, his United Russia party, and a few loyal business oligarchs. Putin offered the Russian people a deal: complacency in exchange for stability. Over the past three months, a nascent protest movement has sought to end that silence.
In early 2009, a similar awakening took place in America as hundreds of thousands of frustrated Americans converged in city centers and town squares across the country to oppose President Obama’s reckless policies. In just the first few months of his presidency, Obama produced a $1.85 trillion deficit (more than quadrupling George W. Bush’s 2008 deficit of $438 billion) and was pushing plans to impose a government-run healthcare system and a massive energy tax on the American people. Americans did not need to wait 12 years to express their frustration; the Tea Party movement was in a state of total mobilization by April 2009.
These two protest movements are taking place on opposite sides of the globe, their marches have rocked the capitals of two nations that were once bitter enemies in a 50 year struggle for global hegemony, and they stand opposed to two powerful presidents.
Both movements have a great deal in common. In Russia, liberals, nationalists, socialists, communists, fascists, neo-monarchists, social democrats and countless other factions opposed to Putin have all banded together under one mantra, “Russia Without Putin.” Throughout his 12 years in power, Putin has coupled his control of the media with byzantine campaign finance laws to splinter and stymie his opponents. But in the past three months, opposition groups have put aside their differences and have coalesced around their goal of driving Putin and his United Russia party from power. This cohesion is giving the opposition international attention; their strength is in their numbers and in their monomaniacal determination to oust the current government.
In America, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, paleo-conservatives, libertarians and disenchanted Democrats have all rallied together under the Tea Party movement’s yellow Gadsden flag with one goal: halt Obama’s left-wing agenda and defeat him in the 2012 presidential election.
Cohesion is key. Tens of thousands of Russians of all different political stripes protesting in minus 20-degree weather gives their movement strength, just as the Taxpayer March on Washington (also known as the 9/12 Tea Party March) gave momentum to their movement.
The Russian opposition needs a viable opposition party, money and supportive media outlets. The Tea Party would have never reached its current level of success without the Republican Party, thousands of willing big-pocketed donors, and most importantly a range of delivery systems for their message: Fox News, the blogosphere, dozens of talk radio hosts, and more. Putin has used control of the country’s politics and its media to hold on to power. Before the December protests, the national media would just ignore or marginalize anti-Putin demonstrations. The movement’s sheer numbers forced the government-dominated media to stand up and take notice of the protests.
Strength and political infrastructure are the key stepping stones on the road to change. The Tea Party movement has permanently changed the American political landscape, but whether the Russian opposition can do the same in the face of an intransigent autocratic government remains to be seen.