Russians got freedoms under Yeltsin, and stability and limited prosperity under Putin. Today, they are demanding the right to decide who rules them.
Twenty years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, tectonic shifts are once again under way in Russia. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities to protest the alleged rigging of parliamentary elections held on December 4. Russia has not seen such a public outpouring since the early 1990s.
The trigger that set off the protests was the official tally of the December 4 election, which gave the ruling party, United Russia, 49.3 per cent of the votes. The party lost 15 per cent compared with the last election four years ago, but independent monitors said real support hovered around 30 per cent and was heavily inflated through mass vote rigging. The Russian internet overflowed with amateur videos of ballot-box stuffing, “carousel” multiple voting and rewriting of final protocols.
It is not for the first time that election results in Russia have been twisted in favour of the ruling party. But never before did they provoke public outrage. Protests that initially drew several thousands snowballed to a 100,000-strong rally in Moscow on Saturday. On the same day, rallies rolled across dozens of cities from Vladivostok in the Far East to Kaliningrad in the West.
Similarities with the Arab Spring were striking but perfunctory. As in the Arab East, the internet played a crucial role in mobilising Russian protests. More than 50 million Russians have access to the web, making Russia Europe's largest internet user. State-controlled television totally ignored the election controversy and initial protests, but people used social networking sites and Twitter to inform one another of planned rallies. The authorities pressured Russia's largest social network provider, vKontakte, to close Opposition groups on the site but it refused.
As in Tunisia and Egypt, protests in Russia were driven by the middle classes. But in Russia, they were not the disgruntled unemployed youths but reasonably well-off educated professionals and office workers. And Russian protests are by no means violent. The most resonating plea on Facebook and Twitter has been for the protests to be peaceful. As one blogger wrote, “We had our Tahrir 20 years ago.” In 1993, hundreds died when President Boris Yeltsin sent tanks to suppress an armed revolt led by the pro-Communist legislature. Demonstrators in Moscow on Saturday gave flowers to the police in a gesture of peace and solidarity, as the authorities backed away from the rough handling of protesters during first post-election rallies.
A majority of those who thronged the streets in Moscow were first-time protesters and, curiously, many were also first-time voters. They had not bothered to vote earlier because they saw little election choice. The United Russia is seen as the party of the corrupt bureaucracy. The opposition parties sitting in Parliament — the Communists, the left-leaning Just Russia and the Liberal Democrats of Vladimir Zhirinovsky — are fully integrated into the establishment and manipulated by the Kremlin. The authorities have firmly put down attempts to set up new parties, denying them registration under various pretexts and harassing businessmen who dare to support them.
In this year's election, political apathy gave way to a sudden surge in activism. People used the only means to protest at the ballot boxes available to them: “vote for any party but United Russia” was the most compelling campaign. The Russians played by the Kremlin rules and won. The Kremlin could not allow the party set up and headed by Vladimir Putin to suffer a humiliating defeat at the polls and resorted to glaring falsifications that sparked mass protests.
Russians have torn up an unwritten “social contract” that Mr. Putin struck with them when he became President in 2000: you stay clear of politics and we keep out of your private lives and let the windfall oil revenues trickle down the line. After the chaotic 1990s, people treasured the stability and increased living standards during Mr. Putin's presidency. They took pride in the resurgence of Russia and its global clout and were prepared to put up with the authoritarian political system dominated by one man — “national leader” Putin.
However, resentment built up gradually as corruption grew to staggering proportions, bureaucratic hurdles strangled small businesses, courts served the rich and the powerful, and people could not change the system through elections. The economic and financial crisis added to the growing dissatisfaction, which boiled over when the election was brazenly falsified.
It was for the second time in recent months that people felt cheated. The first time was when President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin announced in September the decision to swap roles in the presidential elections in March 2012. Many in Russia were shocked by what one commentator called “a cynical private deal that traded the institution of the presidency like a piece of furniture.”
Mr. Putin's decision to reclaim presidency may well prove to be his fatal mistake. Mr. Medvedev, ironically called “Twitter President” for his childish fascination with electronic gadgets, may have been pathetically weak as Mr. Putin's successor but he generated hopes of change with promise of political and economic modernisation, a vibrant multiparty system, an independent judiciary and anti-corruption drive. So when he suddenly abdicated power even before his reforms gained traction, people felt robbed of their hopes. Mr. Putin's comeback was seen as a step backward, especially since he downplayed economic modernisation and political liberalisation and emphasised stability, which many read as stagnation. The prospect of 12 more years with Mr. Putin at the helm (the presidential term was extended from four to six years two years ago) has put off many. Popularity ratings of both Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev, as well as United Russia, went down after the job-swap announcement. A pre-election poll put Mr. Putin's approval rating at 61 per cent, his lowest in a decade.
The big question now is: what happens next? The protest rally on Saturday adopted a resolution that put tough demands to the Kremlin: cancel the tainted poll and call a new election, sack the head of the Central Election Commission and investigate election violations, change the election law and register all opposition parties, and set free all detained protesters. The resolution gave the authorities two weeks to meet the demand, failing which a new rally would be called on December 24.
The demands are unacceptable for the Kremlin. They amount to the dismantling of the system of “managed democracy” Mr. Putin has built, and will undermine his chances of re-election in March. It is important to remember that while the protesters' immediate complaints were about the election fraud, Mr. Putin was the real target of their anger: some of the most popular slogans were “Putin the Thief” and “Russia without Putin.”
The Kremlin is likely to adopt the tactics of small concessions accompanied by attempts to split the opposition. However, they will fail if the protests keep the momentum they developed in the first post-election week. The official opposition parties on which the Kremlin relied so far to manipulate public opinion are useless in the new situation. Their leaders, caught by surprise by the protests, have maintained an embarrassing silence and have been effectively sidelined. The protests are producing a new generation of opposition leaders over whom the Kremlin has no control, such as the 35-year-old lawyer and blogger, Alexei Navalny, who shot to prominence by exposing corruption in leading state companies and coined the now famous nickname for United Russia — “the party of thieves and crooks” — and social activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, a 34-year-old mother of two who has stood up in fearless defence of an age-old Moscow forest condemned to be cut down under a Kremlin-backed multi-billion project to build a new highway.
Analysts said the best way to defuse the crisis would be to open the system to new grass-root political forces, but the Kremlin can only do this at the cost of self-defeat.
“Putin has fallen into a trap he himself set up having built a rigid political system whose opening will destroy it,” said Tatyana Stanovaya of the Political Technologies Centre. “The best he can hope for is to make the collapse less painful and more controlled.”
The Russian leaders should stop clinging to power and embark on democratic reforms. “The authorities must begin building institutions for rejuvenation of the polity while they still have some reserves of strength. If they do not do it in an evolutionary way from the top, the process will start revolutionary from the bottom,” the expert warned.
Two decades ago, people in the Soviet Union poured out to the streets to demand freedom and living standards they saw in western democracies. They got freedoms under Mr. Yeltsin and got stability and limited prosperity under Mr. Putin. Today, they are demanding the right to decide who rules them.