"We went to jail in one country and came out in another,” Russia’s most famous blogger, 35-year-old anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, said on December 21 after serving two weeks’ detention for alleged disorderly conduct during demonstrations against vote-rigging in the parliamentary elections of December 4.

In the country where Navalny and his fellow activists came out of jail, protests against the Kremlin regime had swelled to levels unseen since the twilight of the Soviet Union; the authorities had given up trying to suppress them, and state-controlled television newscasts were providing respectful coverage. Even more shocking: In this new Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin could be mocked on national TV.

Only recently, Russia’s deeper slide into authoritarianism seemed near inevitable. Many thought the last hope for liberalization anytime soon had died in September, when Putin announced his plans to retake the presidency in the election due in March, elbowing aside his handpicked successor Dmitri Medvedev.

Yet there were signs of trouble in Putin paradise. The news of Putin’s impending return as president drew little enthusiasm from the public, perhaps because the “trading places” Putin-Medvedev farce was too blatant. In October, the biggest YouTube hit in Russia was a music video titled “Our Looney Bin Votes for Putin.” It showed grotesque scenes of patients and doctors in a mental ward dancing to celebrate Putin’s comeback, alternating with clips of police beating protesters.

In late November, Putin was booed​—​on live TV​—​at a mixed martial arts fight at a Moscow arena when he stepped into the ring to congratulate the winner. While the jeers were muted in later news broadcasts, the attempts at censorship and spin only worsened the damage.

To some independent Russian journalists, the boos signaled the beginning of the end for Putinism. At the time, most dismissed that prospect as wild-eyed wishful thinking. A month later, it looks less implausible.

On December 4, United Russia garnered 49 percent of the vote​—​down from 64 percent in 2007​—​in a heavily stacked parliamentary election where most opposition parties were kept off the ballot by various ploys. On the face of it, the ruling party’s losses offered little encouragement to pro-freedom forces. United Russia still got enough votes to retain a slim majority in the next Duma, since some smaller parties fell below the 7 percent threshold for getting seats. The three other Duma parties are of the “loyal opposition” type that usually toe the line.

Many observers, however, such as Carnegie Endowment analyst Nikolai Petrov, argued that the real impact of the election had nothing to do with seats in the Duma: What mattered was the symbolism of the ruling party failing to get even half the vote. Suddenly, change seemed possible.

It was this sense of new possibility that drove the protests sparked by reports of rampant electoral fraud. On December 10, tens of thousands gathered on Bolotnaya Square in downtown Moscow; the crowd was officially estimated at 25,000 and unofficially at up to 150,000. The overwhelming majority were not dissidents or activists but professionals, managers, and white-collar workers​—​Russia’s new middle class, once the base of the Putin regime, perceived as the guarantor of stability. Today, more and more of these people chafe at the corruption and the petty tyrannies of a power structure that treats them as subjects rather than citizens.

While Medvedev has promised an investigation of vote-rigging, there is virtually zero chance that the protesters will succeed in their demand for a new vote, despite backing by the European Parliament. The real impact will be on the presidential election in March: If protests continue, the Kremlin will be under pressure to provide at least the appearance of competition. Puppet candidates aside, keeping genuine opposition figures off the ballot may become difficult.

So far, the momentum of protest shows no sign of slackening​—​and the government’s ham-fisted reaction suggests that it will not. In the days after the election, the Kremlin tried a crackdown, with fairly toothless measures​—​such as two-week jail sentences​—​that angered more than they deterred. Navalny’s stint behind bars raised him closer to political stardom.

Clumsy smear tactics have backfired, too. On December 19, recordings of private phone conversations of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in which he made unflattering, often crude remarks about some fellow activists popped up on a Kremlin-linked news site. But instead of discrediting and splitting the opposition, this stunt helped further discredit the government. After a public apology from Nemtsov, one of the activists he had disparaged, Evgenia Chirikova, appeared with him on the Web TV channel Dozhd in a show of unity. He also filed a criminal complaint for illegal wiretapping.

Putin’s live televised call-in conversation with the public on December 15 further stoked the fire. The once and future president sounded by turns conciliatory and insulting​—​now praising the demonstrations against electoral fraud as a healthy expression of democracy, now making a crude joke about mistaking one gathering for an AIDS-prevention event because the protesters’ white ribbons looked like condoms. The crowning moment of the four-and-a-half-hour chat was Putin’s bizarre message to those Russian citizens who, he said, were serving foreign interests and unreceptive to dialogue: “Come to me, bandar-logs.” The bandar-logs are foolish and destructive mon-keys in Kipling’s Jungle Book; but, while the term disparaged the opposition, it also cast Putin in a dubious role, since the line is spoken by a killer python hypnotizing his prey.

Putin’s TV appearance reportedly caused a massive spike in Facebook signups for the December 24 protest rally in Moscow (scheduled speakers include former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev). This time, according to Nemtsov, the demands would exceed fair elections: The slogan would be, “Putin must go.”

The Russian opposition has been saying this for years, to little effect. But something has changed. On December 18, the Central Television program on the state-controlled NTV channel included an 11-minute segment that amounted to a direct attack on Putin. It opened with news that, as host Vadim Takmenev pointedly noted, “no one would have dared to publish a few days ago”: Putin’s approval rating had dropped to 44 percent (from 70 percent in 2008). The rest of the segment was an acidic commentary on Putin’s televised chat​—​his remarks intercut with clips of the hissing python from the Russian Jungle Book cartoon.

Was this a momentary lapse in censorship, or a sign that someone in the corridors of power is preparing to dump Putin? It’s too early to tell. But suddenly, Putin’s defeat at the polls seems plausible. In a November survey, only 31 percent of Russians said they would vote for Putin if the election were held the next day. Few of the remaining 69 percent, however, could name a candidate they would support.

This could be the opposition’s chance, if it can rally behind a strong candidate. Many have hopes for Navalny, who offers a rare combination of pro-capitalist liberalism and muscular populism. This populism has an unsavory side: Navalny has flirted with Russian nationalism and, at times, pandered to prejudice against minorities from the Caucasus (his video ad promoting gun ownership featured self-defense against caricatured Chechen assailants). Navalny’s nationalism​—​which, unlike the Putin brand, has no anti-Western content​—​may be sincere or demagogic; yet his principal message is that Russians must reclaim their dignity from the “party of crooks and thieves” that has held the country in its grip for over a decade.

If Putin does get reelected, it will likely be to a morally weakened presidency and without true popular support. In this new environment, even the tame pseudo-opposition “within the system” may get more assertive, while the opposition “outside” may grow too numerous to silence or intimidate​—​at least, not without giving up any pretense of democracy. For the first time since Putin’s rise to power, the winds of a Russian Spring are truly in the air.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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