30 years have passed since that dramatic moment. Mikhail Gorbachev, defeated by events, said goodbye on television as Soviet leader with a bitter diagnosis of the result of his reforms: “Society has obtained freedom. It has become politically and spiritually emancipated, this is the main conquest, but we are not aware of it, because we have not yet learned to use freedom”. Gorbachev turned today 90.
Russia and Belarus have been ruled by the same person for decades, and in both countries the main dissidents are all in prison or in exile. Despite the elections, the possibility of ousting power through free elections seems almost as utopian as the communist paradise that the USSR haunted for decades.
Fourteen republics achieved independence 30 years ago, but for most of them Moscow remains the main concern. Or even a force of occupation, like in the cases of Ukraine and Georgia. In that 1991 Moscow lost its empire. Today Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is aimed at rebuilding that influence. Despite the costs that it entails inside and outside the country: sanctions, subsidized neighboring economies, rearmament, isolation and up to 13,000 deaths in the Donbas war.
When several laboratories confirmed last year that the substance that nearly killed opposition leader Alexei Navalny was the military poison Novichok, Russian dissent understood that the authorities had moved to the next level of repression. Until 2020, the Putin regime has contained Navalny and his followers with a formula that has worked in other former Soviet republics: judicial harassment in private life, police muscle in demonstrations, vetoes of the electoral registration of their candidates and deathly silence in the main media. Some corpses have been left by the way: last week it was six years since the murder of the opposition Boris Nemtsov. For the opposition, yesterday’s meeting was the last chance to make noise, because after thousands of arrests of protesters they have decided to put the protests on hold until spring. In the ranks of the dissent there is fatigue and ideas are lacking.
On a demographic level, Putin’s popularity has returned to the low point it was at in 2013, a year before the annexation of Crimea resurrected his popularity. According to the Levada Center, 41% of Russian respondents would not like Putin to remain president after 2024. But they still have a solid 48% who want him to remain in power, support that only wavered in 2013, when only 33% wanted it in a next term. Putin, 68, has said that he has not yet decided whether he plans to take advantage of the possibility of repeating that last year’s constitutional reform affords him.