Egypt Envy: Russia's Opposition Imagines Change

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Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr. / AP

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, center, speaks during a rally in Moscow on Jan. 31, 2011

The leaders of Russia's opposition have long been looking for a new refrain — something beyond their hackneyed chants of "Russia without Putin!" — and on Monday night, when they gathered for a protest in downtown Moscow, they seemed to have found one. It came off as a kind of Egypt envy, the revolutionary bug that has afflicted many of the world's dissidents since an uprising broke out a few weeks ago in Tunisia and spread to Egypt. For Russia's opposition, the events in the Arab world have raised some frustrating questions: What's the difference between our leaders and Egypt's teetering President? Why won't the revolution come to us?

By some measures, there doesn't seem to be much difference between the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Many of the social ills that have pushed Egyptians to revolt are just as bad in Russia — and in some cases, they're worse.

According to Transparency International's ranking of the most corrupt countries last year, Egypt was in the 98th place, tied with Mexico, while Russia was 154th. Economic troubles like rising food prices, unemployment, poverty and the vast gap between rich and poor are also comparable in the two countries. The latest data from the U.N. Development Program shows 16.7% of Egyptians lived below the poverty line in 2005, compared with 19.6% in Russia in 2007. The jobless rate is also about equal. In Egypt it was 9.4% at the end of 2009 and it was 9.2% in Russia at the start of 2010, according to most the recent figures in the CIA's World Factbook.

On Monday night, such comparisons came easily to the leaders of the Russian opposition, who are banned from politics and frequently arrested for their activism. From atop a truck bed rigged up with a microphone in Moscow's Triumphal Square, Boris Nemtsov, the opposition's de facto leader, bellowed, "For 30 years, power has been in the hands of the corrupt and thieving dictator Mubarak. But how is he different from our leaders?" A dozen voices in the crowd responded, "They are the same!" A new slogan then seemed to catch on as the rally progressed: "We won't wait 30 years!"

Earlier, the liberal wing of President Dmitri Medvedev's Kremlin also appeared to have caught the revolutionary itch when Igor Yurgens, an economic adviser to Medvedev, warned that Russia could become like Tunisia if Putin decides to take back the presidency in 2012. "Everyone is fed up with seeing the same face," Yurgens told Bloomberg news agency on Jan. 18. For an official of Yurgens' rank, it was a shocking slight against the Prime Minister.

But for all their dramatic effect, comparisons between Russia and Egypt don't hold much water, as two of the opposition leaders admitted to TIME on the sidelines of Monday's rally. For one thing, the Arab world has seen a demographic boom in recent years that has made for a young and restless population. Many of the people setting fire to barricades and stoning police in Egypt are younger than 15, an age-group that makes up about 40% of the population. Russia is exactly the opposite, said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an ex-parliamentarian turned dissident. "Our people are aging and in decline," he said, looking around at the pensioners who made up the bulk of the meager crowd at Monday's event, a regular anti-Putin protest held on the 31st of the month. "Also," he added, "the high price of oil [Russia's main export] has allowed the regime a certain cushion of economic stability."

There is also the timid political culture inherited from the Soviet Union, which spent four generations literally breeding dissent out of the population, says Sergei Kovalyov, a famous Soviet dissident who is now a leading campaigner for human rights. "In the field of natural selection, Josef Stalin had a real gift," says Kovalyov. Stalin realized soon after taking power in 1922 that a nation still high on the ideals of the 1917 revolution would not put up with him for long, and he slowly began to purge the population of anyone prone to free thought. By most estimates, this process killed off as many as 20 million people and nearly wiped out the intellectual class. "In the end, it created a nation genetically immunized against dissent," says Kovalyov. "This has been a great gift to our current leaders."

Still, as the feeble opposition was preparing for Monday's rally, Russia's leadership wasn't taking any chances. The opposition's offices were raided by police on Sunday, and the antiriot troops surrounding the square outnumbered the protesters by about 3 to 1. Some of the organizers were even detained before they reached the square, with one of them, Sergei Udaltsov, stopped on suspicion of using a fake subway ticket on his way to the protest and held just long enough to miss it.

The rally ended less than an hour after it began, and its elderly participants peacefully dispersed, leaving their leaders to stand around discussing the fury in the Arab world. A light snow fell on their heads, and the square became quiet. It looked absolutely nothing like Cairo.