MOSCOW/BEIJING (Reuters) - On the last day of January, a crowd of 600 gathered in sub-zero temperatures on Moscow’s Triumph Square and began to chant “Freedom! Freedom!” and call for the resignation of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“What is the difference between Mubarak and our lot? Nothing. Nothing at all. Resign. Resign you all. We have had enough of you,” Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, told the crowd, raising chants of “Putin resign!” and “Russia without Putin!”
Had the wave of revolution rippling across the Arab world reached as far as Russia? Was this the beginning of a people-power revolution like the one that toppled the Tunisian president and now threatened the Egyptian leader?
Not exactly. Russian authorities allow activists and Kremlin opponents to stage demonstrations on the square on the last day of every month that has 31 days, a symbolic reference to the right to free assembly enshrined under Article 31 of Russia’s constitution.
But such gatherings are hardly cause for panic in the Kremlin. Anyone wishing to join the legal protest must brave lines of riot police in masks and pass through metal detectors before they reach a small, cordoned-off area that sits under the gaze of revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose statue looks down from behind several rows of metal barriers and colourful billboards imploring parents to be kind to their children.
Police film the protests from trucks around the square and security officers mingle with pedestrians and journalists to pinpoint suspects, who are then plucked out by groups of riot police in black helmets, some masked. At the last protest, more than a dozen activists exiting the metro didn’t even reach the site before they were nabbed by waiting riot police and put into buses.
“This is our democracy. Look at what happens in Russia!” yelled one youth as black-helmeted riot police arrested him.
As protesters have stood up to dictators from Tunis to Sana’a over the past few weeks, it’s worth asking if other parts of the world might be ready for revolution. As the protest in Moscow might indicate, the answer in Russia is probably not — at least while oil remains high. It’s the same case in that other big authoritarian state, China. Neither country is a stranger to revolution, of course. But in 2011 most Chinese and Russians simply don’t feel the same sense of frustration and anger that has exploded onto the streets and squares of the Arab world over the past month. A lot of that has to do with the economic stories of both countries over the past decade or so. Chinese and Russian citizens may lack basic freedoms such as the power to change their rulers, but, unlike the average citizen of Egypt or Tunisia, most feel their lives are better now than they were 10 years ago.
But that’s not to say that Beijing and Moscow have no reason to watch what’s happening in the Middle East. There are reasons for discontent in both countries. As the internet spreads in Russia, could it be used to highlight the huge gap between the rich and poor? As China’s middle class swells, will people start demanding more rights?
Both capitals are keenly aware that their domestic legitimacy is dependent in large part on their ability to maintain economic growth. While they may not fear imminent revolt, the apparatchiks in the Kremlin and China’s Communist leaders know that to stay in power they need to constantly fine-tune their level of paranoia and obsessive focus on stamping out opposition. Arab leaders got that mix wrong — but didn’t realise their mistake until it was too late.
In the first year or so of the great recession, as oil prices plunged and exports dried up, Moscow faced the very real possibility of mass protests across the country.
In the most serious demonstration, on January 30 2010, about 10,000 people came out in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. This was a serious problem, with mainstream opposition parties marching alongside local groups to protest against growing unemployment, surging costs and crumbling public services.
The Kremlin, worried that the protest could grow and spread, sent a special group of officials to the region to knock some sense into local officials. It is unclear what method of persuasion the delegation used, but Putin swiftly scolded his ruling party for being out of touch with the needs of the people. In the past, Moscow has often combined a tough fist with wads of cash. In 2009, when the economy shrank 7.8 percent — Russia’s worst annual contraction in 15 years — Moscow poured tens of billions of dollars into towns and factories where workers started to protest. More than $2.5 billion (£1.55 billion) was spent on AvtoVaz, a Soviet-era car factory and Russia’s largest car producer, alone, to stave off bankruptcy.
Taking personal charge of the anti-crisis efforts, Prime Minister (and former President) Vladimir Putin berated leading oligarchs in public and calmed angry workers who blocked a main road in Pikalyovo in Northern Russia to protest against unpaid wages. In the end, the predictions of mass demonstrations proved false.
Now, with oil prices rising again — they hit $100 the first week of the Egypt protests — most observers believe the world’s biggest energy producer has enough oil money to douse any social tensions ahead of the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections. Russia is accelerating out of the economic crisis and the $1.5 trillion economy is expected to grow by more than 4 percent this year after a 4 percent rebound in 2010.
“An oil price of $100 helps preserve stability as it gives additional budget revenues and that allows the government to direct money towards those groups that could express discontent. In other words, Putin’s regime still has a margin of safety,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, one Russia’s most respected opposition leaders, told Reuters.
Apart from all that oil money, Ryzhkov believes Russia’s demographic situation — an ageing population which is not growing — and a yearning for stability after the tumultuous collapse of the Soviet Union make revolution unlikely.
“When you look at the polls, Russia is not in a revolutionary situation: most people want stability and say they can live at the moment,” he said. “Putin and the regime have enough resources to finance pensions, wages and thus to ensure stability.”
That sense of stability has been key to Putin’s success since the former KGB man was unexpectedly appointed President in 1999. For Russians, fed up with the economic instability and pain of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, Putin, 58, represents a return to the security of the past: many seem more than happy to forego certain freedoms in return for a stable rouble and a steady job.
Opinion polls show just 8 percent of Russians consider they do not have enough money for food, down from more than 25 percent a decade ago, though the divide between rich and poor in Russia is still vast. Millions were thrown into poverty during the chaos that accompanied the 1991 fall of the Soviet empire, while a small group of businessmen made fabulous fortunes.
Still, Russians are most concerned about economic problems, according to recent polls. Price rises top the list of worries along with unemployment and the economic crisis, though crime and misuse of power follow close behind.
In what would appear to be positive for the Kremlin, stability is consistently rated as more important than democracy, though the number of people willing to accept it even if it means a breach of human rights dropped to 56 percent in December, the lowest level for that month in over a decade, according to the respected Levada-Centre pollster.
Alexander Ignatenko, one of Russia’s leading experts on the Arab world and head of the Moscow-based Institute for Religion and Politics, dismisses talk of a large-scale revolt. “This is simply a lurid fantasy of the opposition,” he said. “It is simply the product of a rich and I would say the rather sick imagination of the Russian opposition.”
And yet, that’s exactly what the Tunisian and Egyptian leadership might have said just a few months ago. As the number of people with access to the internet rises in Russia — it’s now 50 million out of a population of about 141 million, up from 3 million 10 years ago — Moscow will find it harder to control information and isolate pockets of protest. Could a local uprising ever go national?
So much depends on the oil price — which dictates how much money Russia has to throw money at trouble spots. “If oil falls swiftly then that would swiftly destabilize the situation in the country,” Vladimir Ryzhkov said. “I am convinced they are attentively following the events in Egypt and elsewhere, that they are very concerned by the events...Putin has really activated work on his image.”
Kseniya Sobchak, Moscow’s most prominent socialite and daughter of Putin’s former boss, Anatoly Sobchak, late mayor of St Petersburg, even dared to discuss the possibility of rebellion on prime time radio this month.
“Despite the fact that the population of our country is as amorphous as the arse of an elephant it could at any moment band together and enter the fray, though we never know when that could happen,” Sobchak, 29, said in a discussion she hosted on the Silver Rain radio station, one of Russia’s biggest. “The authorities in Russia have made a deal with the population: sausage in return for freedom, so everyone is so far satisfied. As soon as the sausage is finished so when the oil price falls, the rebellion could happen.”
A Russian official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation: “Of course people are watching the events in Egypt. It is of concern and people are watching but I would not say this is just a concern for Russia — this is a concern for all countries.”
China got a taste of how quickly small incidents can become big headaches in late 2010, when a village activist, Qian Yunhui, was crushed to death by a truck, triggering a firestorm of internet comment and grassroots campaigns claiming Qian was killed as payback in a festering land dispute that set him against local officials.
Officials and police officers in Wenzhou, the coastal area where Qian died, insisted it had been an accident. But photographs of Qian’s head and torso, mangled under the back tire of the truck, spread across the internet, followed by images of confrontations between angry villagers and police in anti-riot gear. Vivid online accounts claimed witnesses saw Qian being pushed under the truck by men wearing white gloves — a claim that police adamantly rejected.
Despite harsh Communist Party restrictions on independent political mobilization, China experiences many local riots, protests and strikes — or what officials call “mass incidents” — often sparked by anger over corruption, land disputes and job losses, especially from state-owned factories. Many involve no more than a few dozen participants, and are peaceful. Some involve thousands of people and have turned violent.
In June 2008, for instance, Weng’an, a town in southwest China’s Guizhou province, erupted in rioting after rumours spread that a local school girl who was found drowned had been raped by two young men with family ties to the police. By the end of the day, the local government office had been trashed and burnt by hundreds of local youth, watched by thousands of residents who believed officials had covered up the crime.
In 2007, China had over 80,000 “mass incidents”, up from over 60,000 in 2006, according to sociologists at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. More up to date estimates are not available.
Last year, a ripple of strikes in factories in southern China’s huge export zones, especially in Japanese-owned plants, showed the emerging voice of a new generation of increasingly assertive migrant labourers demanding better pay and conditions.
Despite this festering discontent, though, there’s little chance that the Chinese government will face a broad public challenge any time soon. The kind of unrest that troubles China is not like a hurricane which could swiftly overwhelm the government, but more like a dust-storm that threatens to distract officials, delay hard decisions, and corrode the authority of the Communist Party.
The reason is simple: for many Chinese, life is better now than at any time over the past few hundred years. Three decades of rapid economic development have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, and the Communist Party has presided over a resurgence in national pride following centuries of domestic chaos and humiliation at the hands of foreigners.
China has put men in space, built a high-speed rail network which is the envy of many developed nations and edged past Japan to become the second biggest economy in the world. Despite the abuses that have come with that progress — jailed dissidents, downtrodden ethnic minorities, severe environmental degradation - many Chinese people today enjoy prosperity that their grandparents could not have imagined.
“People don’t want to rock the boat. Why? Because the history of China over the past two centuries has been so costly for Chinese society that this is the first historical period in which the majority of them can breath,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “I don’t see appetite for political turmoil that would go with a sudden attempt to jolt the system.”
The Communist Party has proved adept at framing dialogue about reform to suit its own needs, offering the people greater opportunity to challenge the system gradually and at the same time make government more inclusive and responsive to hot button issues.
“As long as you can improve the system within the box then there are avenues to challenge this political energy. Even the dissidents and the lawyers have much more space today than they used to have, and many are more gradualists than they used to be,” said Bequelin.
The Chinese public reaction to the protests in Egypt has shown a mix of disdain, apathy and occasional envy. But nobody sees China heading down the same route any time soon.
China’s tightly controlled state media have limited its coverage of the protests, concentrating their reports on government efforts to evacuate stranded Chinese and showing barely a single image of the troops and protesters. Meantime Beijing’s online censorship machine has restricted discussion about Egypt, disrupting searches and removing posts about the turmoil there.
Some online comments have still managed to get through. But while a few have noted parallels between what is happening in Egypt and China, many others have taken a different slant. “We are often warned that ‘democracy brings chaos’, and from events in Egypt and Tunisia we can see that that is the case,” wrote one blogger on the popular sina.com portal.
“Long live China. The people are very satisfied with the current system. You can go shove that ridiculous American system of democracy,” added another.
Rana Mitter, an Oxford university professor of Chinese history and politics, believes Beijing has already faced its Cairo moment - and dealt with it.
“The parallel moment is not now, but China in 1989 when essentially the Communist Party was in a near-death experience,” Mitter told Reuters. “What happened in the two-decades-plus since then is the Party has been doing everything in its power to adapt, to try and change the way in which it operates, to try and understand where the problems lie and deal with them so that it can avoid a 1989 ever happening again.”
Mitter says a central part of Beijing’s strategy “is relatively more emphasis on what you might call social welfare policies ... certainly there’s been much more concentration quite openly in policy circles on issues such as pensions and health care, which were pretty much privatized and stripped down under Jiang Zemin ... That’s basically the way they’re trying to hedge against the possibility of unrest.”
At the same time, Beijing has much stronger tools for control than Egypt, and is less susceptible to foreign pressure.
Xie Yue, a political scientist at Tongji University in Shanghai who studies protest and political change, said that while both China and Egypt are authoritarian, “China has a long history under a Communist regime, and its level of social control is even tighter than Egypt’s The room for social protest in China isn’t as big as in Egypt.”
Another difference: while China’s political system may not be democratic, its top leadership does at least rotate every decade or so and the president and premier are barred from serving more than two terms.
“In Egypt and in Tunisia people can blame the government for corruption and nepotism,” said Bo Zhiyue, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute. “But in China you don’t have this dynastic system, with one family dominant for 20 or 30 years. You have a transition from one generation to another.”
The government’s biggest fear is that an economic slowdown could stoke discontent among educated urban middle classes, hitherto reluctant to risk their material gains with political activism, fuelling overtly political protests that challenge Communist Party rule.
To stop local protests and demonstrations spiraling into wider confrontation that dents Party control, China’s leaders keep a tight grip on information and political activities. That’s why, along with more than 457 million internet users, China now has an army of internet censors, which some reports have estimated could number in the tens of thousands, although no firm count is available.
That’s also why internet and media operators exercise self censorship — killing stories and comments without direct instruction from officials, out of fear that they could step beyond accepted bounds and risk their often lucrative business.
And it’s why the sort of massive security operation put in place for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing has become a general model for control. China now swaddles all its big meetings, events and sensitive dates with police and guards to scare off trouble-makers, extinguish protests and project power. Dissidents, protesters, and even the mentally ill are kept under unrelenting guard at sensitive times of year.
By keeping such a tight lid on grievances, does China’s government risk creating a pressure cooker that could blow?
Yu Jianrong, a prominent Chinese researcher of social unrest, warns of just that in a new book.
“Undoubtedly, this exclusionary system creates the risk of creating social ruptures and a collapse of the political order,” Yu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in the Chinese-language book, “Contentious Politics”, published in late 2010. “To respond to these risks, the rulers constantly resort to a range of measures that have ultimately formed a structure of unyielding stability The rulers are at all times in a state of high vigilance, striving to utilize all resources to protect their ruling status. But in the end the massive and unsustainable social costs may lead to a rupturing of political control and social order.”
The financial costs of maintaining this implacable stability could also weigh heavy, ultimately crippling the government and sapping resources from social welfare and other needs, Chinese researchers have said.
China’s total spending on domestic security reached 514 billion yuan ($78 billion) in 2009, a whisker below the military budget of 532 billion yuan, a group of social researchers from the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing estimated in a report published earlier this year.
“Threats to social stability are constantly being side-stepped and postponed, but that is making social breakdown increasingly grave,” it said. “The current model of stability has reached the point where it cannot continue.”
Rana Mitter points to the environment as one possible friction point. “It is one of those issues which can articulate the middle class,” he said. “Firstly because once you’ve got a certain level of prosperity, concern about the environment becomes greater. Secondly, because if you have a property-owning middle class they become much more concerned about the value of what they own. That might be a tip for one of the slightly sideways directions from which trouble could come.”
In Russia, some see next year’s presidential elections as a possible rallying point. Putin is expected to make a return to the Kremlin, giving him the chance to rule Russia for an additional 12 years. Critics say that would wrap Russia in stagnation similar to the period when Leonid Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union.
Mikhail Kasyanov, prime minister during Putin’s first presidential term and now a leading opposition figure, told the European Parliament this week that the “elections are the last chance to peacefully change the situation. We already see revolutionary moves in Russia.”
If the elections were to be marked by massive fraud, he said, “we can expect something, not like in Egypt — with sticks and camels — but with pistols and knives.”
That’s still unlikely. But if the oil price were to plunge and stay low, then trouble is likely to follow. “When people are asked if they support Putin they say yes but then when people are asked if they are satisfied with schools, pensions, the police the overwhelming majority say no, no we are not happy,” says opposition leader Ryzhkov. “So if the macroeconomic stability was destroyed it could lead to a very swift and major protest.”
Guy Faulconbridge reported from Moscow and Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard from Beijing; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Moscow; editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith