The joke goes like this: “Breaking news: Vladimir Churov, head of the central elections commission of Russia has been badly injured in a fire. He sustained burns over 146% of his body.”
Churov is widely held responsible for orchestrating ballot rigging in favour of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party during the 4 December Duma (parliamentary) elections. Although official figures show United Russia’s vote fell from 64 to 49%, and that they lost over 70 seats, the poll is widely disputed.
Protests began on 5 December when 5000 rallied in Moscow to demand that the elections be re-run. Many were arrested or roughed-up by police, leading to outrage and a much bigger rally of 50 000 on 10 December. This was the biggest protest march in Russia since the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It seems that the motor force behind the protests is the one-fifth of the Russian population – the ‘middle class’ - which has been a beneficiary of ten years of political stability and economic growth under Putin and Putin’s sidekick and current president, Dmitry Medvedev. The 1990s was a period of chaotic politics and economics in Russia and it seems that – for the past ten years - much of the population were happy simply to have a job and rising living standards.
But now things have shifted.
Putin’s obvious contempt for the population and his crude attempts to manipulate politics – for example by setting up compliant ‘opposition’ parties; his on-going attempts to regain the Presidency in March; the stifling of independent media; the arrest of dissidents; rumours about his vast and corruptly-gained wealth – have alienated a broad layer of this new ‘middle class’ who are now in open rebellion.
The latest protests, on Xmas eve, were the biggest yet. Perhaps 100 000 rallied in Moscow. The marchers were mainly young, but the opposition wave is still growing, now drawing in first-time protesters and older people. The fear of protesting seems to have broken down.
Over 100 demonstrations took place across Russia.
In the Pacific port of Vladivostok, demonstrators carried posters calling for Putin to be put on trial. 100 protesters braved temperatures of -15ºc in Orenburg on the border with Kazakhstan. In Chelyabinsk in the southern Urals 500 protesters marched under the slogan: “These elections were a farce! We want honest elections.”
In Moscow, Alexei Navalny, a prominent blogger and anti-corruption activist, recently released from 15 days in jail following the 5 December protests, addressed the crowds: “I see enough people here to take the Kremlin and [Government House] right now but we are peaceful people and won't do that just yet.”
Navalny – who coined the phrase which is now widely used to describe United Russia, “the Party of crooks and thieves”, describes himself as a ‘nationalist democrat’. The Moscow rally passed a motion saying that no one present would vote for Putin in the March Presidential election.
Putin’s rude dismissal of the recent protests appears to be backfiring. He called the protesters “Banderlog” - after the monkeys in The Jungle Book - and said their protest symbol, a white ribbon, looked like a condom. The first speaker from the platform, music journalist Artyom Troitsky, dressed himself up as a condom.
Sergei Udaltsov, a leader of the Left Front, a coalition whose founder members include Boris Kagarlitsky declared by videolink: “We are the 99%. The 1% are Kremlin bandits, criminal oligarchs, corrupted officials and other bastards.” Referring to Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the president, he said: "The leadership – these tandem dwarves – is deathly dangerous for Russia."
In an attempt to head-off the democracy movement Medvedev announced some proposed reforms including easing rules for registering political parties and presidential candidates. However Medvedev has a reputation for promising reform and then backing-off.
Those on the streets clearly want more.