I had dinner the other night with Alexei Navalny, Russia’s sandy-haired, impassioned, anti- corruption activist. At 34 years of age, Alexei is using his internet campaign to build a place for himself in Russia’s political future But over dinner, at Moscow’s trendy Red October arts complex, every third sentence of Alexei’s discourse was punctuated by the word ‘Tunees’ – or Tunisia.
Earlier in the day, it was the turn of Russia’s older political generation. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union turns 80 on March 2. He told a Moscow radio station: “If things continue the way they are, I think the probability of the Egyptian scenario will grow.”
The Arab revolt, stretching from Tunisia to Bahrain, has transfixed Russia’s beleaguered opposition.
Could it happen in Moscow?
The short answer is: no.
In Iran and the Arab nations in revolt, the demographic wheel releases millions of young men and women onto weak job markets every year. In contrast, Russia’s population has a profile similar to Japan’s. It is aging and shrinking. Russia’s revolutionaries want their pensions paid on time.
Also, the most threatened nations in the Arab world are run by men that people here would consider dinosaurs. Hosni Mubarak was 82 when he was forced to step down in Egypt. Russia’s leadership is relatively youthful. Prime Minister Putin is a vigorous 58. President Medvedev, sometimes called Winnie the Pooh in Russia’s blogosphere, is a soft featured 45.
And, so far, Russia’s authoritarian tandem is delivering the goods.
Over the last decade, per capita income increased 6-fold in Russia. While political freedoms in Putin’s Russia are comparable to Mubarak’s Egypt, Russia has delivered a series of benefits unheard of during the Soviet era – vacationing on a sunny foreign beach, shopping at home in a Western standard mall, driving a world class automobile, attending church or mosque, and surfing the internet.
The one part of Russia that is not enjoying this mix of economic consumerism and demographic conservatism is already in revolt. In the southern Caucasus, a largely Muslim area, unemployment ranges around 50 percent. This week, Alexander Khloponin, the presidential envoy to the Caucasus, estimated that the average age of the 1,000 active insurgents in the Caucasus is 18.
Other parts of the former Soviet Union where generational turmoil threatens entrenched rulers are Belarus and two countries in Central Asia, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan.
Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, rules Belarus, a nation that is now 75 percent urbanized. Short term, he is holding on in face of widespread domestic opposition, a wall of hostility from the European Union, and skepticism from the Kremlin.
In Central Asia, rising tides of young job seekers are colliding with collapsing infrastructure implanted by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. In a report last week, the International Crisis Group said that in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, young people are fed and educated more poorly than during the Soviet times. For now, emigration to Russia to work is the only solution. Popular revolts have happened in Kyrgyzstan. More are expected in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
With oil near $100 a barrel, as it is today, the Kremlin can continue to run Russia like Alaska, handing out relatively generous social benefits subsidized by natural resource exports. With parliamentary and presidential elections to take place in Russia over the next year, the Kremlin last year boosted pensions by 45 percent.
Only if oil falls below $30 a barrel, we can think of ‘Tunees.’