Earlier this month, tens of thousands of Russians marched in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and several other cities decrying the recent parliamentary election results. In the largest series of protests since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago people have united across political affiliations shouting, “We exist! We exist!”
The protests began December 4th – shortly after election results were released showing in some instances returns that totaled as high as 146% of the popular vote. Russians took to the streets, chanting, “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin.” By the following Saturday, people turned out en masse (estimates range from 25,000-100,000) for a protest in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. It was accompanied by dozens of smaller rallies across Russia’s nine time zones.
During the election, ballot boxes were stuffed; monitors shooed away; voter registrations bought, sold, and forged; and teams of United Russia activists bussed from precinct to precinct to vote early and often, in a process called “The Carousel.”
The elections were not a surprise. Last September the current President Dmitry Medvedev announced Vladimir Putin would run again for the presidency, a post that he held from 2000 to 2008 and an impossibility until a recent amendment to the Russian Constitution.
This revealed a level of cronyism, long suspected – Medvedev has been cast as “Robin to Putin’s Batman”. Some Russians now snidely refer to this political maneuvering as “rokirovka” – the Russian word for castling in chess, the move in which a rook and the king are moved at the same time, to shelter the king. This “castling move” will allow Mr. Medvedev to assume Mr. Putin’s job as prime minister after the elections March 4th – an agreement according to Putin that was reached “a long time ago, several years back.”
This announcement was understandably met with public outrage and frustration. Putin’s approval ratings went down. Vladimir Aristarkhov, a local publishing house employee, explained, “Our local version of Dr. Evil and his Mini-Me will stay in power as long as they can.” At the time there were a few small protests but nothing compared with the magnitude of crowds post-election, inspired by people-powered movements across the globe.
The demonstrations are a welcoming sign of a popular social movement organizing in opposition to the self-described “Putin regime”. They also countered a long-standing belief that the only groups capable of mass mobilization in Russia are extreme nationalists.
“I guess I just got tired of whining about Putin on my blog,” says Sergei, 31, an IT engineer. “I felt like I had to actually do something, something real.”
As of November 2011, Russia has more Internet users than any other country in Europe, and the country’s blogosphere, with about 5 million blogs and 30 million monthly readers, has become the last truly free space for political discourse in Russia’s tightly controlled media.
In a departure from “business as usual” Russian national television actually covered the uprisings. Newspaper reports claimed a veteran news anchor, Alexei Pivovarov, refused broadcast if he could not cover the protests, thereby, forcing media outlets to cover the December 24th protests as well.
During a recent four and half hour radio interview Putin suggested that the protesters were being paid and ridiculed them. But Putin’s hubris and glib mockery seem to have gone a step too far. “They let the genie out of the bottle on Sept. 24,” said Ilya Ponomaryov, one of the protest organizers. A Muscovite tweeter, Aafinogen, stated that during Mr. Putin’s speech the number of people signed up on Facebook for the protest December 24th rose by 3,500 people, totaling 21,500.
The December 24th demonstration in Moscow, Ралли За честные выборы (Rally For Fair Elections) or #D24, took place at Sakharov Avenue around 2pm (MSD, UTC+4) with an estimated 120,000 protesters present. “We have enough people here to take the Kremlin … but we are peaceful people and we won’t do that – yet. But if these crooks and thieves keep cheating us, we will take what is ours.” said activist, anti-corruption lawyer and blogger Alexei Navalny who spent 15 days in jail for his participation in demonstrations on Dec. 5th.
Blatant fraud during the Dec. 4th parliamentary elections was critical in mobilizing the middle class, who for years has remained otherwise apathetic or silent about the political climate. The rally today was larger than previous demonstrations, and along with several protests held in other cities and towns throughout Russia, indicates that this is indeed a growing protest movement. “There are so many of us here, and they [the government] are few … They are huddled up in fear behind police cordons,” said former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, one of many speakers at today’s rally.
In the Pacific port of Vladivostok, demonstrators carried posters calling for Mr. Putin to be put on trial and regional MP Artyom Samsonov said the election results should be cancelled. Novosibirsk, Siberia held a rally of 800-1,500 peaceful demonstrators. About 100 marched bravely in Orenburg, on the Kazakhstan border, despite a heavy frost and temperatures of -15C. Chelyabinsk, a city in the southern Urals, held protests of about 500 under the slogan “These elections were a farce! We want honest elections!”
President Dmitry Medvedev, a close ally and long-standing member of Putin’s regime, promised those and other changes, including the restoration of direct elections for half of parliamentary seats and easing impartial rules for presidential elections, during a national address given Thursday. However, many have expressed discontent with what they perceive as false promises. “These measures are insufficient. They are intended to calm people down and prevent them from showing up at rallies.”, says Arina Zhukova, 45, who attended today’s demonstration in Moscow. Protest organizers have also made it clear that they will keep fighting for a re-election and the punishment of government officials who played a part in the recent election fraud.
A resolution to create the Moscow Voters’ Association to monitor elections for fraud was passed at today’s rally based on concerns expressed during the demonstrations December 10th, when fifty thousand people assembled in Moscow.
At today’s rally, 22 speakers were expected to attend, where the opposition addressed a politically diverse crowd. Yury Shevchuk, a Russian rock musician, told protesters to keep their dignity and avoid “competing in hatred for the authorities” by video message. Grigory Yavlinsky, presidential candidate and veteran liberal, spoke in person, calling for a free electoral system. Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet leader, was unable to attend, but sent a message of support for the protesters instead.
Russia has long been known as a hot bed of oligarchic cronyism and corruption – Putin was a member of the KGB – but until now opposition and dissent has been limited to predominantly Internet activity. However, with new insight into how national politics are cavalierly decided in secrecy, Russians are incensed. Finding inspiration in people-powered movements across the globe, they are using the virtual space they have created to capture the physical.