Russia presidential election: Public call for change after 'vote rigging'
Russian society made a tremendous shift last month following allegations of brazen fraud and voting rigging at the December, 2011, State Duma elections which boosted the results for Prime Minister Putin's party. The mass opposition rallies which followed the election results were fuelled just as much by general discontent as they were by anger and calls for a re-run. The slogans chanted on the streets of Moscow demonstrated that the Russian middle class in particular is now a political force to be reckoned with. On the second day of the Russia mini series, GIS looks at how the protests were handled and what the Kremlin faces as public discontent becomes increasingly vocal.
ELECTION rigging and falsification of elections is nothing new to Russia. Every election that has been held since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been tainted by allegations of such wrongdoing.
According to numerous reports, ballot stuffing, bogus voting and other irregular activities were rampant. But what made it all so different this time was that there was a public outcry that left the Kremlin visibly shaken
It was therefore to be expected that the State Duma election on December 4, 2011, would be marked by more of the same. And so it was.
According to numerous reports, ballot stuffing, bogus voting and other irregular activities were rampant. But what made it all so different this time was that there was a public outcry that left the Kremlin visibly shaken.
On Monday night, December 5, 2011, the day after the election, between 5,000 and 15,000 people gathered at the Chistie Prudy metro station for a sanctioned rally, chanting slogans against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LiveJournal were instrumental in rapidly pulling together crowds.
As the protesters marched towards the Lubyanka metro station, they were met at the headquarters of the FSB - the state security service - by riot police who responded with considerable brutality. Some 300 people were arrested, among them anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalnyi.
On Tuesday night, an unsanctioned rally at Triumphalnaya Square resulted in street battles, with hundreds more arrested. Numerous allegations were made of police brutality and of torture and beatings inside police vans.
Charged with disobedience
Many of those arrested, on both occasions, were charged with disobedience to the police and sentenced to 15 days in prison.
By Saturday, December 10, the government had visibly changed its attitude.
A sanctioned rally held at Bolotnaya Square, just across the river from the Kremlin, gathered between 25,000 and 100,000 protesters. This was the largest rally held in Russia since the early 1990s.
There was a massive police presence, but no violence. Protesters were mainly young and middle class. Many were dressed in designer clothes. Banners cried out against Mr Putin’s 'party of crooks and thieves', called for a 'Russia without Putin', and demanded that the stolen election be handed back to the people.
Many of the protesters wore white ribbons, hoping that the response to the election would be a watershed event; perhaps the trigger for a 'snow revolution' to follow the previous 'color revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine.
On December 15, Prime Minister Putin held his annual televised call-in show, spending four and a half hours answering questions from selected regions of the country. Commenting on the white ribbons, Mr Putin said they reminded him of condoms. He added that as it was inconceivable that so many people could have taken to the streets to demonstrate against a perfectly free and fair election, they must be activists seeking to raise awareness about AIDS.
In his own hallmark use of bad language, he also compared the protesters to 'Bandar Logs', the monkey people in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, whose incoherent behaviour causes them to be scorned by the rest of the jungle.
On Saturday, December 24, protesters gathered for another rally in downtown Moscow, this time on Sakharov Avenue, named for the renowned Soviet physicist, Nobel Prize winner, and human rights activist. The rally was sanctioned for 50,000. The actual turnout was between 30,000 (according to the police) and 120,000 (according to the organizers).
An expert, consulted by the Novosti News Agency, estimated 56,000. The Moscow Times claimed maybe 80,000. The groundswell of protests was clearly building momentum.
Many claimed they had been mobilized by Mr Putin’s abusive language. Some carried inflated condoms decorated with the face of Mr Putin. Others carried placards saying 'We are not Bandar Logs'.
The list of speakers addressing the crowd from a giant stage was diverse, ranging from anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalnyi, to opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin. The event was covered by more than 700 reporters, and the crowd included a long list of celebrities named in the media. White ribbons and white balloons where everywhere.
As the crowd was gathering strength, it was clear that the Kremlin was beginning to fear that it was indeed looking at a Russian version of the previous 'colour revolutions' in Ukraine and Georgia.
A spokeswoman for President Dmitry Medvedev announced that political reforms were being contemplated.
What may still save the day for the regime is – paradoxically – the broad nature of the protest movement. In addition to liberals waving the hallmark white flag of the current wave of protest, communists could be seen waving their red flags, and nationalists waving the yellow-black-white flags of the Russian Empire. Bringing these diverse groups together under focused leadership may not be all that easy.
The next rally in Moscow is tentatively scheduled for 4 February, 2012.
- Tens of thousands attended anti-government rallies in the Russian capital, Moscow, in December, 2011, to condemn alleged ballot rigging and demand an election re-run
- Smaller rallies of thousands took place in St Petersburg and other cities
- Among those arrested and jailed were several key protest leaders such as anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalnyi
- In the December 4 election, United Russia won 238 parliamentary seats in the 450-seat Duma - down 77 from 2007's result
- But there is a widespread view, fuelled by mobile phone videos and accounts on internet social networking sites, that there was wholesale election fraud allowing Mr Putin's United Russia party to cheat its way to victory
- International observers noted violations at a quarter of Russia's polling stations during the December 4, 2011, elections
- Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev called for an election re-run
- Support for Putin's United Russia party fell below 50 per cent for the first time in the December 4, parliamentary election