The People Vs. Putin

Can a small but robust civil society trump the powerful Russian state? Or will the curse of oil ensure repression?

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Photo-Illustration by Hieronymus for TIME

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Of course, the Russian state is still powerful, dominant and pervasive in politics and the economy. Despite all the stirrings of change, the power of the state, expertly wielded by Putin, should give one pause. It is not just that Putin has been able to reconstitute some of the apparatus of fear from the Soviet days. It's also about money. The Russian state has at its disposal the greatest natural resources of any country in the world: oil, gas, diamonds, nickel, copper, aluminum. Those riches give the government the ability to both repress and bribe its population.

Consider this fact. Despite the sweep and force of the Arab Spring, it has not produced political change in a single oil-rich country. The revolution started in the deserts of the Maghreb in Tunisia. Morocco was quickly swept along. But right next door sits Algeria, more repressive than either of them and yet untouched by protests. It might be called an Arab Spring, but the discontent began a year and a half earlier in a non-Arab country, Iran, when the Green movement took to the streets. But the Iranian regime, which buys support with patronage and represses with its paramilitary, persists. The oil-rich Gulf states have also survived the winds of change--even in Bahrain, where the opposition enjoys strong support.

The Soviet Union fell when oil prices dropped to around $20 a barrel. If they were to drop again, as some predict, Russia's state would lose its greatest asset. And if Russia's civil society can produce even modest change against these odds, it will rewrite history.

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