It started with the parliamentary election on December 4. Putin's United Russia party was able to claim only 49.7% of the vote, down from about 65% in the previous election. With opposition split among Communist, nationalist, liberal, and other parties, the results leave United Russia still easily the biggest bloc. But since there seems to have been widespread election fraud, it's likely -- and widely believed in Russia -- that the ruling party's real share of the vote was much lower than 49.7%.
Protests erupted almost immediately, and quickly spread beyond the cosmopolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg into the normally less-activist hinterland of the vast country. While the regime deployed large numbers of police, overall the response was more restrained than it has been in the past, though several political activists were arrested (most later released). The regime may have been reluctant to provoke an all-out confrontation in the capital given the scale of the protests there, which reached tens of thousands of participants. It may also have been startled by the failure of its established methods of control; it exerts a heavy influence over old media like TV and newspapers, but the protesters used the internet to spread information and organize their activities, and aside from arresting a few bloggers, there was nothing the authorities could do about it.
In the following weeks, the regime offered the usual tired old lines of response used by such governments the world over -- blaming the protests on foreign subversion and the like -- but President Medvedev also tried to reach out to the protesters and offered concessions. It's unclear, by the way, to what extent Medvedev is his own man vs. being a puppet of Putin, who currently holds the lesser office of Prime Minister. Putin is clearly the dominant figure, but Medvedev has steered his own course in some ways, including seeking better relations with the West, in contrast to Putin's confrontational approach.
On Saturday the 24th, the democracy movement showed that it isn't going away, by mounting another major demonstration in Moscow. Organizers estimated participation at 120,000 despite sub-freezing temperatures, a substantial turn-out even in a city of ten million.
It remains to be seen whether or not this movement will have the persistence and determination to bring real democracy, but something has changed in Russia. Protesters now denounce not only corruption and the oligarchs, but Putin himself. Being able to communicate with each other via the internet, outside regime- controlled channels, people have learned how many others share their disgust. As happened at the beginning of the Arab rebellions, a critical psychological point seems to have been passed; fear is no longer strong enough to keep large numbers of people in line.
There is no reason why Russia shouldn't be a normal democracy -- and an ally of the West. Its population is well-educated and its science and technology are at or near Western levels. Culturally it is much more closely related to the West than most non-Western societies are. Russian public-health conditions are terrible by our standards, but this is mostly due to staggering levels of alcohol consumption (and smoking), a problem which is not insoluble. Putin's policy of confrontation with the West is short-sighted given that the biggest threats to Russia -- China and militant Islam -- are also the main adversaries of the West (and of India).
When Communism fell, Russians hoped they'd end up with a social democracy like Scandinavia or Germany. Instead, the country has drifted toward the pattern of Latin America a decade or two ago -- a caudillo state with a tiny, super-rich, parasitic oligarchy lording it over the relatively-impoverished masses. There is no reason to expect an educated and sophisticated nation to tolerate such a dismal outcome indefinitely.
If the democracy movement does mount a serious challenge to the regime, will the outcome resemble Tunisia -- or Libya? Despite the country's authoritarian history, there is some basis for hope. Recall that in 1989 and 1991, Russia (in marked contrast to, say, France's record in Algeria) let its empire go without a fight. If the Red Army had made a serious effort to hold places like Poland, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan by force, the resulting blood-bath would have made the Yugoslavian wars look like a pillow-fight. Yet that did not happen.
The stakes for us are very high. Russia remains a great military power (it has more nuclear weapons than all other countries on Earth combined, for example), and its natural resources and potential technological abilities are vast. As an open society and ally of the West, its value and contributions would be immense.
And frankly it's about time. Russia's history holds much glory, but very little prosperity, freedom, or happiness. Russians deserve better than Putin and a cabal of oligarchs.