In a matter of months since spring this year, the movement for democracy, transparency, probity in public life and other country-specific issues has crossed continents and acquired a global sweep. As the international year of street protests draws to a close, the snow-covered roads of Moscow and St Petersburg have started warming up with angry demonstrations.
Not that post-Soviet Russia has not witnessed popular protests earlier. Early February 2010 for example saw a series of smaller protests in Moscow and St Petersburg in defence of the right to free assembly – guaranteed by the Russian constitution but seldom respected. The current agitation however is by far the biggest in scale and edge, both in its own terms and in terms of its global context.
After a few small demonstrations following the allegedly rigged parliamentary elections on December 4, a huge peaceful rally was held in Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, on December 10. Between 25,000 (according to police estimate) to over 50,000 (according to activists) participated, consisting of liberals, communists, anarchists, nationalists and people without political affiliation. The majority consisted in upwardly mobile middle class people, young urban professionals and the intelligentsia – groups that had benefited from substantial growth in the Russian economy until the current economic crisis but have been alienated by increasing political corruption as well as recent stagnation in their income.
The general mood of marchers was best expressed in a sign which read, “I did not vote for these bastards, (showing a logo of Putin’s party -- United Russia) I voted for other bastards (showing logos of other parties). I want votes re-counted.” Also there were calls for “Russia without Putin” and against “the party of thieves and crooks” (meaning the ruling UR).
Unlike during the previous small demonstrations, there was not a single arrest this time round. Many of the protesters threw flowers at policemen and interior-ministry troops, with the latter showing a non-aggressive mood. The rally ended with the song “Peremen”, meaning “Changes” -- a perestroika anthem from the 1980s.
In Petersburg at least 10,000 people protested the same day, the biggest demonstration since 1995. In Nizhny Novgorod, Krasnoyarsk, Vladivostok and many other cities (about 60 according to some reports) there were smaller demonstrations of a few thousands.
The immediate provocation for the protests was provided by reports of election irregularities across the country, including allegations of obstruction of observers and illegal campaigning. There were counter allegations, too, from the ruling UR. Other major grievances and demands include: release of political prisoners; annulment of the election results; the resignation of Vladimir Churov (head of the Election Commission) and the opening of an official investigation into polling fraud; new democratic legislation on parties and elections.
Why did the protesters direct their ire mainly against Putin? After all, he is a charismatic leader credited with restoring stability and national pride in Russia after the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. So what went wrong? Anti-incumbency sentiments? To an extent, maybe yes – he has been at the helm, either as President or as Prime Minister, for more than ten years and now many people feel Russia needs a stronger leader to cope up with economic uncertainties and political problems like disgruntlement of people in distant regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East. But there were also other reasons for the electorate to be angry with him.
Putin had ushered Medvedev into power in 2008 because of a constitutional ban on three successive terms as president. And when on September 24 this year the two announced, at a party congress of UR, that they planned to swap jobs after the March election, the people of Russia saw it as arrogant and undemocratic. They took it as an affront to their right to free choice. The whole electoral process – claimed to be a great exercise in parliamentary democracy as opposed to the Soviet era “dictatorship” – appeared to be something pre-arranged and manipulated from the top. The disaffection was reflected in pre-election opinion polls too, some of which gave UR only 15% of the vote, way behind both the communists and the liberals. In actual results UR got almost 50% (down from 64%) which many people saw as unconvincing. The “protest votes” went mainly to the ‘reformed’ – or should we say liberalised -- Communist Party (CP) which secured almost 20 per cent of the total vote and emerged as the main opposition with 92 seats. The left-of-centre “A Just Russia”, also gained, increasing its seats to 64 from 38 in the outgoing parliament. Demonstrations started instantly. On 7 December, Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, said he felt that a new election should be held because the number of Russians who believed the election was rigged was rising daily and that the government needed to listen to public opinion. Other eminent personalities voiced their support and the protest gained momentum pretty quickly thanks to extensive use of social networking sites like Twitter.
An important difference between the protest movements in Russia and in other countries is that in the latter case, economic woes are a major – if not dominant – factor; much less so in Russia. May be this is why the involvement of the working class is minimal as yet. The CP organised a march in Moscow on 18 December, where no more than 5000 people were mobilised. Mostly ignored by the Western media, a number of big pro-government rallies were also organised by Nashi and other youth organisations. There has been a lot of biased reporting, too. Fox News for example used footage of the 2011 Athens riots, showing people throwing Molotov cocktails at police, and signs in Greek and claimed this was happening in Moscow!. Later, of course, it regretted the ‘error’.
There is no doubt that a strong and stable Russia is not in imperialist interest. There is an element of American instigation as apparent, inter alia, from Hillary Clinton’s comment about “well-founded concerns about the conduct of the elections”. But the root cause, as elsewhere, lies in people’s genuine grievances and this has found expression also in the increased vote-share of left or left-of-centre parties. To all appearances, the March 2012 presidential election will be far from a cake-walk, as it used to be, for Vladimir Putin.
So far the former KGB Chief has handled the agitations in a clever manner. He tried to obstruct, with some success, the first few protests and to black them out in the media; then allowed the big 10 December rally go undisturbed; and now both he and partner Medvedev have started recognising the need for some political reform. Whether the current agitation will continue in the present form cannot be foretold; a bigger rally scheduled for 24 December may give us some indication. Only one thing is certain. The people of Russia have once again started demanding change and they will continue the quest.