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This is not how the New Year was supposed to begin for Vladimir Putin. The official script was clear enough. After presiding over his United Russia party’s now-routine rigging of the December 4th parliamentary elections, Putin was supposed to sail to victory in the coming March presidential race, resuming the office that he never truly relinquished to his longtime deputy, Dmitry Medvedev, while a passive Russian public looked on. But that script, so familiar in recent years, has been rejected by an unlikely source: a fed-up and suddenly politically conscious Russian middle class.
Anger at Putin has been simmering ever since his September announcement that he would be swapping jobs with Medvedev in a pre-agreed deal, a brazen admission than made a mockery of what remained of Russia’s damaged democratic process. The more immediate source of the public’s outrage is the December 4th parliamentary elections, which saw United Russia triumph in its usual style, complete with widespread fraud and ballot stuffing, but without its usual mandate. That Putin’s party failed to capture its standard majority was unexpected. But arguably more shocking has been the post-election surge of civic participation in a country that was written off as apolitical and even indifferent to the dissolution of civil liberties and the rule of law during Putin’s 12-year reign.
If the events of the past few weeks have proven anything, it’s that this view of the Russian public requires reassessment. On December 10th, some 60,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across the country poured out into the streets in a display of anti-government protest unprecedented in recent Russian history. Demanding a “Russia without Putin!” they called for the annulment of the elections and a new vote. Putin’s initial response was to dismiss the demonstrators’ concerns and to portray them as puppets of foreign powers. That had the unintended effect of galvanizing the protestors, who again took to the streets on December 24th, this time with as many as 120,000 people in Moscow alone. The message rang loud and clear: Russians were angry and they weren’t willing to stay silent.
Russia’s budding protest movement underscores several important changes inside the country. The first is the emergence of a politically active middle class. This has come as something of a revelation. For much of the Putin era, it was assumed, not least by Putin himself, that Russians didn’t particularly care about politics. What Russia’s middle class wanted was political stability and rising living standards. But the new generation wants more. The mostly young, urban professionals who have made up the recent protests are not content with stability at the expense of democracy and they chafe at the government’s blatant corruption. “We’ve been assured for decades that we are sheep,” says Ilya Yashin, the leader of the liberal democratic Solidarnost movement. But “we have shown the whole country, the whole world, that we are a free and proud people.”
Indeed, defiance has been the dominant attitude of the protests. After Putin mockingly likened the protestors’ white solidarity ribbons to condoms, they responded at the most recent demonstration by waving condoms like balloons. Their signs have been scathing, branding United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves,” the phrase coined by the popular opposition activist and blogger Alexei Navalny. And their demands have been uncompromising, best captured by the movement’s emerging slogan: “Not a single vote for Putin!”
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