Thousands of young demonstrators showed their frustrations over weekend parliamentary elections that handed a narrow victory to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin's party despite claims of fraud.
An avalanche of accounts and reports of rampant vote-rigging during Sunday’s parliamentary elections, in which United Russia maintained its majority in parliament, is flooding the internet. Amateur videos showing falsified ballots spilling out of boxes at polling stations, reports from election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe too, had observed blatant fraud, including the brazen stuffing of ballot boxes.
With many of the videos apparently showing violations by United Russia, officials on Monday moved quickly to discount them.
“I’ve seen these clips people are uploading to the Internet,” Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said. “Nothing can be seen in them.”
Officially, United Russia got roughly 50 per cent of the vote, a significant drop from the 64 per cent the party won in the last election. But the reports of fraud indicate it may have lost even more support than those results suggest. Central Election Commission officials said they have received no reports of serious violations but would investigate any formal complaints.
This election was emerging as a watershed moment in a country where people have long seemed inured to vote manipulation, both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. The fraud allegations have set off protests in the street and stirred broader public indignation, suggesting that the political system Vladimir Putin built to solidify his control has begun to crack just three months ahead of a vote on his return to the presidency.
Anger over the election drew more than 5,000 people on Monday night, in one of the biggest anti-Putin protests witnessed in Moscow in years, and included many who admitted to have never before joined opposition calls to come out on the streets.
Yesterday, hundreds of people took to the streets of Moscow for a second successive day to demand an end to Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule, defying a crackdown by tens of thousands of police reinforced by crack interior ministry troops. Protestors were hoping to maintain the momentum from Monday.
The Russian authorities acted decisively to quash the second day of protests, flooding the appointed site with throngs of pro-government activists who banged on tin drums, drowning out the chants of “Russia without Putin!”
Police officials stated that 250 people had been detained, slightly fewer than the 300 who were detained Monday. Even as those reports filtered out, anti-government activists were calling via Twitter for a third round of protests on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Vladmir Putin seems to realize that he needs to respond to the discontent, but is giving no sign that he knows how.
"As for the question of what exactly is worrying people and why they don't vote for United Russia but vote for other parties, of course we need to think about this," he said. "We need to analyze these problems and formulate further suggestions on solving them."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticized what she called “troubling practices” before and during the vote in Russia. “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted,” she said in Bonn, Germany.
Russia dismissed US criticism of its parliamentary election as unacceptable on Tuesday and urged its former Cold War enemy to refrain from such "hostile attacks" in future.
"Regrettably, Washington sticks to out-dated stereotypes and labels without even attempting to understand what is happening in our electorate," the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
A comparison between the situation in Russia and the Arab Spring is being drawn by analysts.
On the face of it, Vladimir Putin's Russia shares some of the ingredients of Ben Ali's Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak's Egypt: a disenfranchised but educated youth, an oppositional internet and social media, a corrupt state run as a kleptocracy by small elite, and the impossibility of real political change.
Additionally, for a second day running, in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, we have witnessed the kind of pro-democracy rallies that the cities had not seen since the rough and tumble of the early 1990s. Although the outcome is far from clear, a few things are already coming into focus.
The question is, was the election a tipping point for Russia, where a repressed political opposition comes out onto the streets and stays there?
The short answer appears to be a no, democratic change in Russia could yet take time to emerge. Mr Vladimir Rzyhkov, an economics professor and a former liberal MP, who was banned from registering and running for election as an independent, remains pessimistic about the possibility of democratic change.
Accordingly, 85% of Russians are not involved in any association of any kind, political, social, religious or any other. There is near-complete passivity. The issues that get people going are generally off the main political agenda. Some are connected to driving, like the campaign to stop the elite putting blue flashing lights on their car and driving fast down the centre lane to avoid the jams. Other hot-button issues are environmental like the campaign that accompanied the building of a road from Moscow to St Petersburg through a forest.
“If there were a democratic force out there, it would already have made itself felt.” Professor Rzyhkov said.
The road ahead
Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin has appeared shaken by the election results and by the overall lack of enthusiasm over his decision to reclaim the presidency from Mr Dmitry Medvedev. It is clear that many Russians are growing weary of his leadership, and of the pervasive corruption and great social inequality it has fostered.
Still, there is little doubt that Putin will win the presidential election. He remains more popular than his party and will likely face only tepid opposition, given his control over who is allowed to run.
Report: Voters Watch Polls in Russia, and Fraud Is What They See [The New York Times, 5 Dec 2011]
Analysis: Viewpoint: Are post-poll protests a Russian Spring? [BBC, 7 Dec 2011]