Sparking some of the biggest protests in modern Russia, last year’s fraudulent parliamentary elections proved that the Russian peoples’ discontent can no longer be limited to the kitchen tables’ conversations. As expected, Putin’s United Russia won most seats in the State Duma. Despite the protests, the opposition may not be able to challenge Putin in the upcoming presidential elections.
In December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians went to the streets to demonstrate against fraud and corruption. The protests were not so much unexpected by the Russian government as they were overwhelming in scope and magnitude. Nothing like it had occurred in Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s.
The legislative elections caused the turmoil. Ballot stuffing, biased media coverage, falsifications as well as the state governed elections’ administration caused unfair elections in which fore mostly United Russia as well as other other political parties were accused of ruling the game to the best of their abilities. International monitors say that United Russia would not have received absolute majority in the parliament without the fraud due to decrease in its electoral support.
Several smaller protests took place during the days following the elections, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Among them were the well known opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and the blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny who was one of the initiators of the protests. Voices of dissent and anger culminated in the Bolotnaya demonstration which took place on December 10th on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square.
Similar to the cases of the Arabic and North African revolution movements, social media played a profound role in the mobilization of demonstrators.
The The opposition claims that ca 50.000 showed up while the police in Moscow estimates the figure to be closer to 30.000. A second big protest in Moscow took place on December 24th, this time estimated to have included from 30.000 to over 100.000 protesters, depending on who you ask. Both were relatively peaceful, with riot police merely standing by as the crowd demanded annulment of the election results, freedom of political prisoners and reelection.
– The demonstrators have managed to achieve several important things. The apathy of the people has been cast away and the citizen society has awakened. Well educated young Russians have had enough of lies which culminated in the legislative elections and they discovered that they are not alone. In fact, they are many and powerful, says Kalle Kniivilä, foreign editor at the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet.
The Russian government was unprepared for such a magnitude among Russians’ dissent. While state television initially was quiet about the protests, it could not keep hiding the truth and eventually broadcasted the protests. Neither could Putin and his colleagues ignore what was happening in the streets of Moscow.
– Decision makers have realized how much a people of a modern, and in many ways open society can tolerate. The political leaders are forced to adopt people’s demands, at least to a certain extent, in order to avoid a bigger confrontation in the society.
Still, Kalle Kniivilä tells Utrikesperspektiv that concrete action from the government has been small. Among it are law amendment suggestions that would decrease adjustments in the political system and replacement of some officials which may have been planned already before the demonstrations. At the same time, pervasive critique of opposition leaders from the government has increased.
– Decision makers hope that the storm calms itself down. Meanwhile, they will again use propaganda in order to stop the opposition.
In the upcoming presidential elections, Putin is likely to win after having served two terms as president before Medvedev took over in 2008. The opposition has not managed to organize itself effectively against Putin whose party has strong hold of Russia.
– The Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has the biggest chance to meet Putin in a second round. Still, he has no chance of winning and is part of the political establishment rather than a real opponent to Putin, says Kalle Kniivilä.
Putin, who still has considerable, albeit decreased support as parliamentary elections showed, may face more public dissent from his opponents as another demonstration is scheduled to take place one month before the presidential elections.