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The Russian Spring Has Begun

Moscow—There is a remarkable consistency over the course of Russian history: Every authoritarian regime perished not because of destiny’s blows or enemy onslaught but because of internal disease. In the 20th century, it happened twice: the February Revolution of 1917 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

The slow-motion collapse of Vladimir Putin’s regime is no different. After more than a decade of authoritarian rule, Mr. Putin’s self-described “glorious deeds” have become the object of contempt not just on opposition websites but increasingly on the streets of Moscow and in the mainstream media.

Two events this year sharply accelerated the decline of trust in the regime among elites and the general public. The first was the shameful deal struck with President Dmitry Medvedev on Sept. 24 clearing the way for Mr. Putin to run next year for a third presidential term. The reaction across the country was explosive. Even the most thick-skinned citizens saw that turning the presidency into the object of a private swap made a mockery of the Constitution.

The second event that greatly deepened the current political crisis was the clearly fraudulent Dec. 4 parliamentary election. Independent observers believe that 15%-20% of the votes were falsified in favor of the ruling United Russia party. This scale of vote-rigging was unprecedented even by Mr. Putin’s standards. The election violations began well before Dec. 4, when nine opposition parties were forbidden from participating in the election.

These events have completely undermined the legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s regime and made it a laughing stock in the eyes of the general public. The presidential election scheduled for March 4, even if it results in an official “victory” for Mr. Putin, will likely be another major step toward the regime’s downfall.

What is happening in Russia today is similar to the rejection of authoritarianism the world witnessed in what is now called the Arab Spring. As with the Mubarak regime in Egypt earlier this year, the Putin regime has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of its own people. On Dec. 10, more than 60,000 Russians turned out in the streets of Moscow to protest the regime. Among them were many young people who do not see any future under the current regime. After this protest, Russia will never again be the same. Though the rally was organized by the liberal Solidarnost movement, people of varying political creeds and from all walks of life participated, proof that a mature civil society has taken root.

There is no way to hold back the growing wave of protests. Most Russians now understand that the current legal and economic system in Russia lacks the basic elements of a free-market system. The concept of private property is practically nonexistent and things can be easily taken away or awarded depending on loyalty to the regime.

Although an impressive police and security apparatus exists, this only perpetuates the illusion that stability can be maintained by force. As we saw in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, any attempt to fully employ the security forces will only lead to the delegitimization of the regime.

“We perfectly realize what is going on,” one Kremlin ideologist told me recently. “But it’s too late to jump off the train. The new authorities will come after us and arrest us [if we lose power]. That’s why we have no option but to keep running like a hamster on a wheel.”

The regime’s last resort is to inflate outside threats from Russia’s eternal enemiesNATO, the West and the United States. Mr. Putin recently claimed that Russians demanding his resignation receive instructions directly from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and are funded by U.S. sponsors. Mr. Medvedev has said that the U.S. intends to strip Russia of its nuclear capabilities. And Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, told Russian news agencies last month that “the pro-NATO and anti-Russian policies of the Baltic states and Georgia could lead to local and regional military conflicts including using nuclear weapons.”

These claims of Western threats are primarily intended for domestic use. But there is one threat that the Putin kleptocracy takes very seriouslythe threat to its multibillion-dollar bank accounts, assets and real-estate holdings in the West. People in the Kremlin took seriously the list compiled earlier this year by the U.S. State Department barring entry visas for Russian officials allegedly involved in the 2009 death under detention of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

They realize that any extension of this list could directly affect them and their overseas holdings. To protect their assets and hang onto power, these people are willing to brandish a nuclear stick.

Those who warn that the collapse of the Putin regime is fraught with unpredictable consequences have a point. But they are dead wrong if they believe that the preservation of this regime is less risky. A Putin dismissal is the only chance we have to save Russia from the gangrene of systemic corruption.

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