By Jeffrey Tayler
Anyone with an Internet connection can easily see why throngs of protestors have been clashing with riot police in the wake of Russia's Dec. 4 parliamentary vote. Check out the map, posted by independent monitor Golos, showing the number of election violations in cities and towns throughout Russia. Or search Youtube for "vote rigging 2011" (фальсификация выборов 2011) and take your pick from clips displaying everything from pre-stuffed ballot boxes to election officials furtively filling in votes.
Officially, ruling party United Russia won just 49.5 percent of the vote, compared with 64 percent in 2007. Widespread indignation over the apparent fraud, though, brought thousands of Muscovites into the streets in what the Moscow Times called “one of the biggest liberal opposition rallies in recent years.” The paper initially estimated the turnout at 5,000, but then upgraded it to somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000. Though sanctioned by city authorities, the event ended in mass arrests that included the detention of veteran liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, highly respected anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, and even the rock critic Artem Troitsky. Among the slogans protestors chanted: "We need new elections," "Russia without Putin," "Revolution" and "Shame."
The overwhelming evidence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s shrinking popularity caught the ruling tandem off guard, with President Dmitri Medvedev feebly proposing, in response, to restore the “none of the above” option on the ballots. The Moscow Times relayed Putin’s explanation for United Russia’s poor showing, which he termed “inevitable” because “it has been shouldering the burden of responsibility for the country for years.” He promised to reshuffle his government, without providing details.
Putin and his team then donned their spinmeister caps and set about addressing what they called misconceptions. Speaking to party functionaries, Putin described United Russia's increasingly popular moniker -- "the party of crooks and thieves" -- as "a way of referring to government in general,” according to Ria Novosti. People “say the party in power is the party associated with thieving and corruption. But if we recall the Soviet years, who was in power then? Everyone called [people in government] thieving and corrupt. In the 1990s [under President Boris Yeltsin] they did the same thing.”
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, said that talk of his boss’ declining fortunes were much ado about nothing. “Putin’s popularity and that of United Russia are two entirely separate things in our internal politics,” he told the BBC, neglecting to point out that his boss happens to top the party’s ticket for next March’s presidential elections. “Putin,” he went on to say, “was never directly connected to the party, therefore he was seen as an independent politician.”
The government's immediate actions offered a glimpse of how Putin might try to handle growing dissent. On Tuesday, the Russian News Service cited bloggers’ eyewitness accounts of Interior Ministry troops riding into Moscow in columns of military vehicles. The soldiers “have one objective: assuring the safety of [Russian] citizens,” the ministry’s press secretary told Interfax. Other convoys brought in young citizens favorably disposed to the Kremlin. That evening, according to the Moscow Times, the pro-Putin youth group Nashi held a joint rally with members of three other similar organizations on Triumfalnaya Square. Protestors had also gathered on the square. All told, the crowd numbered between 1,500 and 5,000.
“The authorities didn’t know what to do and have brought out kids,” said one protestor wearing a pin “denouncing ‘the party of crooks and thieves.'” The Moscow Times reported that “many protestors shouted ‘whores’ and ‘bastards’ at the pro-Kremlin groups, who resorted to cheering on the police as they swept down on the opposition.” About 250 people, including Eduard Limonov, leader of Other Russia, and Yabloko party chief Sergei Mitrokhin, were arrested. For a no-holds-barred video montage of the melee, which lasted more than three hours, check out the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomlets.
Where will the unrest lead? The newspaper Kommersant warned of a “Slavic Spring": “The tandem might use fear of a situation out of control in our country and the rise to power of nationalist populists or unreformed communists” to curry favor with the West. In an op-ed piece published in the Moscow Times, opposition blogger and radio talk-show host Yulia Latynina pointed out that the “first signals” of widespread discontent with Putin’s rule came “several weeks ago when fans at a mixed martial arts fight at Olimpiisky stadium jeered” the prime minister when he took the stage to congratulate the winner. She declared that “you can convince people that the West is out to destroy Russia and that the dollar will soon collapse. But you cannot convince people that Russia is building new roads, hospitals or schools, that the authorities are reducing corruption or that people’s democratic rights are being protected.”
Latynina hazarded that protestors may not be fully aware of all the episodes of corruption and abuse of office associated with Putin's regime, but “nearly everyone has had their own experience where a friend or relative was hit by a government official in a speeding car and the guilty party was never brought to justice, or when some corrupt businessman or government official stole the rights to their plot of land and the courts turned a blind eye to the problem."
Her verdict: “Putin’s system is disintegrating with frightening speed. My guess is that it won’t survive until the next elections.”
Just who would replace him remains troublingly unclear.
(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)
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