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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Red Again: Russia's Unlikely Color Revolution

Shortly after the so-called Rose Revolution in Georgia, the leaders of the other nations that once made up the Soviet Union gathered in the Caspian Sea oil town of Baku for the funeral of Azerbaijan's longtime strongman president, Ilham Aliyev. There, the heads of state of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Central Asian republics paid their respects to their fellow authoritarian even as they nervously eyed the instigators of the democratic uprising in their midst.

It naturally fell to President Vladimir Putin, who in private and sometimes in public has demonstrated a taste for earthy, even crude language, to sum up the jittery mood. He walked over to one of the leaders of the Georgian revolution, two Georgian officials later told us, and declared pungently that all of the heads of state in the room were "crapping in their pants.''

As it turned out, those presidents were right to worry. Since that day in December 2003, two more of the men who belonged to that exclusive club have been unceremoniously pushed out of office by popular street revolts, first in Ukraine's Orange Revolution last December and now in the March Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.The swift spread of the revolutions has unsettled tyrants and inspired democrats throughout the vast reaches of Moscow's former empire, generating excited, if overheated, discussion of what some analysts over the last week were quick to dub "the second breakup of the Soviet Union.'' Some were even daring to ask the ultimate question: Could Russia itself be next?

After four years as The Washington Post's bureau chiefs in a country where even the past, as the old Soviet joke goes, is unpredictable, we learned that just about anything is possible. But we also spent our entire tour watching Putin's Kremlin systematically embark on a project to avoid any threat to its rule. The results of the Kremlin campaign that began with Putin's election five years ago are evident today: no independent television to serve as a bullhorn for revolution, as it did in Georgia; a divided, weak and unpopular reformist opposition unable to unite around a single leader, unlike the broad coalition that formed in Ukraine; and cowed businessmen unable or unwilling to finance rival political efforts after watching the Kremlin jail Russia's richest man and confiscate his oil company.

Even in the early days of Putin's presidency, when it was still unclear to many where he intended to take the country, his advisers were plenty clear about the project. "Putin has said he wants to end the revolution,'' his political consultant, Gleb Pavlovsky, told us at the time, "not to start a new one.''

And so there was Pavlovsky last week, telling a Moscow news conference confidently, "There is no threat that what happened in Georgia and Ukraine may happen in Russia.''

Unlike the fading, aging leaders there and in Kyrgyzstan, Putin, he intimated, would not hesitate to stop any such uprising by force. "Weapons should be used against rebel groups and criminals who stormed the parliament building in Bishkek,'' he said. "If the authorities fail to perform their institutional duties in those cases, they give away power. ... In all cases where organized citizens promote this revolution scenario, they should be suppressed.''

When he came to power, Putin was determined to end a revolution -- Boris Yeltsin's. Even though Yeltsin had handpicked him as his successor, Putin saw the 1990s not as the heady if flawed start of a new democracy but as a period of roiling instability, economic dislocation and crumbling state power.

Elections were part and parcel of what Putin considered the unseemly mess of democracy, and his counterrevolution was all about making sure they did not become the trigger for revolution as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. We got an indication of this attitude toward elections early in our tour when we went to the next-door republic of Belarus for the balloting that would hand a second term to Alexander Lukashenko, often called Europe's last dictator.

While Western election observers trooped around polling places amassing evidence of manipulation, we found the head of the Russian monitoring team at a medieval castle outside the capital being feted at a private lunch before taking a tour of the countryside. The official was so confident in the election's outcome that he had no apparent need to actually monitor it -- having already told the press that it was being conducted in a free and fair manner. Appropriately enough, the official was Alexander Veshnyakov, head of the Russian Central Election Commission.

In the various corners of the old Soviet empire, we met hundreds of activists over the last few years from political parties, human rights groups and media organizations who dreamed of toppling the repressive regimes that had emerged from the ashes of communism. Nowhere was the discontent stronger than in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps most important, though, was that in these countries, there was just enough political space for the opposition to operate, making for noticeably more open environments compared with neighboring countries.

By contrast, in Azerbaijan, a tough-minded new president quickly quashed street protests by the opposition after his election, determined not to follow the revolutionary script. It worked, and we watched as Baku's Freedom Square turned into a battlefield. Opposition leaders were then rounded up and jailed. No one thinks Azerbaijan is on the brink of revolution today.

While many call this the second wave of democratization across the Soviet Union, that may misjudge the nature of the regimes that took hold when the union fell apart in 1991. In many of the newly independent states, the old communist boss simply became the new "democratic'' president, and others who later took over, like Lukashenko, were simply old apparatchiks.

"There wasn't really a democratization wave 15 years ago,'' a senior Bush administration official told us the other day. "The old regime crumbled, and it was replaced by local authorities. This is really the first wave. It's a delayed thing. These countries came out blinking and confused into the light of sovereignty, not democracy, and they were taken over by local strongmen. These strongmen sometimes paid lip service to democracy, but the people knew the difference.''

If that's the case, then, Russia may not feel the need to head down the same road. To many Russians, revolution and democracy have become tainted terms, equated with chaos and hardship, not freedom. Outside the narrow circle of intelligentsia in Moscow and St. Petersburg, many Russians agreed with Putin that a little autocracy was a good thing, and they handed him a second term in last year's flawed but probably representative election.

But many uncertainties remain as Russia heads toward the crucial year of 2008, when Putin's second and final term under the Constitution expires. Many in Moscow believe he will try to find a way to hold onto power, and the city is abuzz with various schemes he could use to remain in control. If there were a revolution in Russia, many worry that it would not happen peacefully. The color of revolution in Moscow, then, might be red for blood.

Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker contributed this essay to The Washington Post, where it first appeared.