Can the Arab revolt spread to Russia and the former Soviet Union?

Posted February 17th, 2011 at 8:13 pm (UTC+0)

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.

Mikhail Gorbachev believes Russia could be headed toward an Egyp Scenario. Photo AP

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.

But at the end of the day, Russia’s own political fate is determined by the price of oil. Taxes on oil and gas sales account for 40 percent of Russia’s budget.

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.’

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

6 responses to “Can the Arab revolt spread to Russia and the former Soviet Union?”

    • The anti matters the dark side or the dark vedar is here among us in the form of HITLER, MUSOLONI, SADDAM HUSSEIN, COL GADDAFI, PUTIN, MEDVEVDEV, Ahmednijad, Khomini, fighting against the bright side of democrazy – Evil has made us believe that there is no Evil.

  1. Gennady says:

    The short answer of ‘no’ in the article is shortsighted. It may be true just for the present moment on the pattern of V. Lenin’s words that “There is no revolutionary situation in Russia at the present time”. But it is irresponsible to say ‘no’ in a bit longer run. In that sense.
    M. Forbachev is nearer to the truth. And his reason is evident: the knot of unsolved fundamental problems in Russia is tightening on and on. The problems are not being solved but pushed under the carpet further and further. Lack of vision for future Russia, invincible rampant corruption, gagged press, suspended Constitution, complete stagnation in science, technology, education and healthcare, selling off natural resources, oil and gas are unsustainable. The mentioned opposition should be blind in not seeing that.

  2. Hugh Hill says:

    Tunisia, Egypt, Libya,Yemen, Syria, fallen and perhaps more to go in the Arab/north African peninsular many are pointing the finger saying that it is Iran that is and has been pulling the strings with a push to take all north Africa, and with it the entire Arab peninsular with control of up to 60% of the worlds oil/fuel resources.
    on the other side of Iran we see serious political unrest in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan & Azerbaijan, Both Dagestan and Chechnya are both real threats that have been causing serious headaches for the Russians for the past few years and again here also appears to be on a knifes edge.

    Maybe I am wrong but it is no secret that the Iranians have been for many years shielding/suppling & training the Chechen separatists fight and now doing the same with other anti Russian Islamic states including Georgia.
    But its what Russia wants to do to and how far are they prepared to go to defend their borders that really matters.

    I suppose we will just have to wait and see..

  3. Pyotr says:

    Perhaps it is hard to say yes if you are leisurely conversing over dinner, at Moscow’s trendy Red October arts complex, but it is not so if you are a provincial teacher with salary of 150$ per month with a monthly heating bill over 75$ and two kids to feed.

  4. Dan Thrapp says:

    Well thanks for all the good reports and information…and now speaking of information your announcement that Russia will be OK unless oil drops below $30.00 a barrel…has merit! Seeing that we don’t want the Russia people to suffer; because of the insanity of Islam lets drop it down to $40.00 a barrel and see how the Arabs deal with it now!



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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