Russians Turn Against Putin

Anti-Kremlin demonstrations signal a political awakening by the Russian public.

Democracy has been little in evidence throughout Vladimir Putin’s repressive rule, but this weekend saw a rare instance of popular civic participation, as Russians rallied in a massive display of discontent with Putin’s corrupt government.

Tens of thousands of people across Russia marched in protest of last week’s rigged parliamentary elections, demanding Putin’s resignation and calling for a new election. In Moscow alone, as many as 100,000 people reportedly turned out to make their voices heard – the largest such demonstration since the short-lived democratic efflorescence of the early 1990s.

The protests were all the more notable for their boldness in criticizing Putin and his ruling United Russia party. Thanks to state control of Russian’s main television stations, the source for most of the country’s news, the government has largely succeeded in projecting an image of popular approval, bolstered by polls purporting to show Putin’s widespread popularity. The weekend rallies undermined that carefully constructed image. Signs carried by protestors declared that “Putin is a thief” and called for his ouster. Still others proclaimed that “146 percent of Muscovites are for free elections,” a reference to the massively inflated voter turnout that United Russia claimed in the recent election. Yet another sign read: “I did not vote for these bastards. I voted for other bastards. I demand a recount.” Among the protestors, there was a sense that even Putin could not ignore the sight of so many people protesting him and his government.

That remains to be seen. Based on its initial reaction, the Russian government’s view of the protestors seems to be one of strategic tolerance. Contrary to its thuggish response to the protests that immediately followed the December 4th elections, when police cracked down on and imprisoned opposition activists and bloggers, the government chose to let this weekend’s demonstrations unfold without police harassment. Despite the immense turnout in Moscow, there were no reported arrests. Government officials even professed concern for the protestors’ grievances. United Party boss Andrei Isayev said that their “point of view is very important and will be heard by the media, the state and society.”

That concern is demonstrably insincere. Otherwise, Putin and his surrogates would not have rigged the elections as blatantly as they had; nor would they have spent the past week alternately dismissing the concerns of voter fraud as trivial and demonizing the protestors as agents of subversion instigated my Western powers, notably the United States.

How then to explain the government’s refusal to crack down on this weekend’s demonstrations? The consensus among Russian analysts seems to be that the government believes the protests to be unsustainable and expects them peter out without having to be suppressed by force. There is ample evidence to support that view. While it would be encouraging to view the protests as a sign of budding democracy in Russia, it does not square with the public’s views. Polls have consistently shown that Russians do not rate democracy as their top priority, with most favoring stability and order above political reform.

Another problem for the protests’ sustainability is the lack of an organized political opposition. This weekend’s demonstrations were a case in point. Everyone from liberals, to nationalists, to communists to anarchists took part, and while they were respectful of each other they were hardly united in any one coherent political platform. Finally, the government has a timely ally in the weather. With the chilling winter months looming, Putin and his cohorts may figure that the protestors will not take to the streets for the foreseeable future.

Even if they are proven correct, however, the awakened political consciousness that this weekend’s protests represent marks a welcome development. While Russians may not be democrats-in-waiting, they are not apolitical. That is almost certainly a consequence of increased Internet penetration. The number of Internet users in Russia has grown dramatically in recent years, surging by over 20 percent in 2009 alone. That growth helps explain the surprising backlash to the elections. While the electoral fraud was not new, it was captured on the Internet like never before. Amateur videos showed officials stuffing ballots, while Facebook pages teemed with reports of repeated voting and other instances of vote rigging. Internet social media like Twitter Facebook and blogs were also critical in stoking popular outrage and fueled this weekend’s rallies. Even the Russian media was forced to take notice of the protests, something that it had never done when its monopoly on news coverage was unchallenged.

The resultant climate of growing dissent that has inspired some prominent government critics to take on Putin directly. Gold mining magnate Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, announced on Monday that he would challenge Putin for the presidency this March.  Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister and an outspoken critic of the government’s corruption, has also said he would run. While they are guaranteed to lose, their willingness to participate is significant in itself. After all, the last prominent businessman to challenge Putin, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, found himself in jail on trumped up charges.

Democracy has a long way to go in Russia, but the outpouring of opposition to Putin and the country’s corrupt political system in the aftermath of the latest rigged election suggests that the status quo has changed, even if only marginally. Despite Putin’s best efforts, Russian politics is becoming less predictable.