With the Russian protests, lots of people have been wondering about the change in attitude among Russians, notoriously apathetic or at least convinced of their own powerlessness.

I’ve been wondering more about the change in, if not attitudes, at least tactics of the authorities. The Kremlin and security forces linked to it had three options: quell the protests by force; pacify the demonstrators with another vote count instead of taking their demands seriously; or run a repeat election (setting aside for a moment the fact that an investigation or repeat of this poll is not the same thing as allowing meaningful choices onto the ballot in the first place).

All we know is that, after their first, harsh response, they didn’t do the first. They may be doing the second or the third.

Still, we’re used to photos of riot police hitting peaceful demonstrators (even elderly women) during dissenters marches and the protests that take place on the 31st of the months. Why not now?

A simple answer is that there are too many protesters. Scenes of a large-scale clash would probably be too similar to ugly pictures from the Middle East or North Africa for Moscow to stomach (and, give it credit, it hasn’t banned foreign reporters from beaming them abroad).

And what might happen, anyway, if the order went out to charge into the crowd? As others have noted, those most loyal to the Putin regime are a relatively small circle of civil servants (if you can call them that) who have enriched themselves greatly since 2000. But what of the police officers and, especially, the country’s famously mistreated soldiers? How far could they be pushed to attack their fellow citizens?

Galina Stolyarova, TOL’s Russia columnist, says, “This time the authorities are afraid because the United Russia party has become VERY unpopular.”

Citing a source at City Hall, she puts the party’s real support in St. Petersburg around 12 percent, instead of the percentages in the mid-30s reported by the Central Election Commission across the city’s districts.

“The authorities have to allow some people’s anger to be released while they are deciding what to do about the party unpopularity crisis,” Stolaryova says.

Other TOL contributors agree that the crowds are just too big to treat the same way as the more frequent, smaller protests, and they are made up of a previously apolitical demographic, the urban middle class.

“They can no longer use the narrative that this is just a small group of troublemakers,” says Peter Rutland, an expert on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at Wesleyan University.

Alyaksandr Kolesnichenko, a political reporter for Novye Izvestia, figures that there could be a split among those in power over the use of force.

And Rutland reminds me that “repression against crowds has not gone down well in Russia,” citing the 1905 massacre of marchers led by workers’ rights champion Father Gapon that was a prelude to the revolution, and the deaths of 22 people in 1962 at the hands of the army during riots over food prices and working conditions in the town of Novocherkassk.

I am a terrible prognosticator, so I’m not going to try to predict what will happen from here (except that some people will be thrown overboard if they are deemed a handicap to Putin’s “re-election”), although it’s probably safe to say that there’s not a great deal of soul-searching – just damage control – going on in the Russian White House.

And if that’s true, then, the changes the protesters are looking for – new names and faces in charge and a genuine commitment to fight corruption – are the kinds of changes the current power structure cannot make. I hope the protesters are prepared to keep coming out through the long, brutal Russian winter.

Photo by Sergey Norin/flickr.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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