The Revolution That Wasn't

03/01/2012 11:38 am ET | Updated May 01, 2012

Downtown Moscow is currently experiencing a constant stream of pro- and anti-Putin protests. On Monday, it's Election Day in Russia, and this is the final stretch of the race. In the West, we were impressed by the tens of thousands of Russian protesters who braced the icy cold on Christmas Eve to rally against the current administration. We hoped that their numbers would grow and eventually result in something comparable to the Arab Spring: a tectonic shift that reduced the corrupt and illiberal political status quo to political rubble.

That will not happen. That's what think tank experts, bloggers and journalists in Moscow say when asked. Of course one has to be careful about taking their statements at face value, but a bit of research backs up their pessimism: There will be no Russian Spring. But why not?

The per-capita income in Russia has been rising for the past few years. Inflation is low. National debt is lower than in most Western countries, thanks to the booming energy industry. And according to Russian observers, the benefits of those developments are shared by an increasing number of people. Thus, the situation differs fundamentally from Tunisia, where a local trader set himself on fire in December 2010 because he could no longer afford to buy basic food. The revolt in the Arab world was sparked by hunger and blocked employment opportunities. In Russia -- not only in the Moscow metropolitan region -- skilled labor is in high demand. The situation couldn't be more different.

Additionally, say the think tank experts, Russians are wary of revolutions. 1917 led to catastrophic conditions, and the 1990s were a time of bad memories for many Russians as well. Most people do not want to see wholesale change of the political order.

Where do the protests stem from? September 24th is often mentioned as a tipping point: At a memorable party congress of the "United Russia" party, Putin and Medvedev announced their intention of swapping offices - and indicated that the decision had been made years before. Russians saw it as a Communist theatricality, maybe garnished with a bit of American glamour. Many -- especially intellectuals -- were seriously angered by the staged announcement. A threshold had been reached, and the protests began to gather momentum.

Putin still struggles to make sense of the demonstrations. In his mind, the prosperity and stability of Russia is the direct result of his policies. And like any usurper, he desires to be loved towards the end of his political life. "But I love the people!" -- those are the famous words of Erich Mielke, formerly the head of the East German security services that spied on the GDR's population. I wonder whether the people would have agreed with him and etched the words into his tombstone.

Putin is now presenting himself as the strong leader. His public appearances are highly personalized; symbolic references to "United Russia" have largely been removed. Yet many in Moscow know that civil servants are shuttled to Putin's speeches and are required to be in attendance. Lists with the names of mandatory attendees are on hand and must be signed.

Can a small elite of critics destabilize Putin's system? After all, rising prosperity has historically resulted in calls for greater political participation. At least that is the hope. The Kremlin cannot crush the protests, the Internet is not censored (another difference to the Arab world). Bloggers who are paid by the state to spread propaganda online are well known in activist circles. And the offer of the Orthodox Church to act as a mediator between the protesters and the Kremlin shows that the momentum of dissent cannot be easily dismissed. When he is re-elected, Putin will have no choice but to ensure greater political participation. At the moment, the hopes of the opposition rest on this fact.

Many say that the deal between Putin and Medvedev had long been obvious. Well, Russians would disagree with that. They had hoped for Medvedev to retain power, and they have been disappointed. Medvedev is the tragic figure of this election. Already, pundits are speculating about his possible retreat from Moscow's political stage.

Russians are used to quite a bit of political circus. But the Putin/Medvedev tandem will no longer fool them. That's enough anger for sustained protests -- but not for a real revolution.