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Russia: “Why Are Russians Protesting Now?”

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

On Saturday December 10, 2011, the world watched the biggest protests Russia has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has been almost exactly 20 years since Christmas Day in 1991 when power passed from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. It is believed that Yeltsin did not even make a personal appearance to accept from Gorbachev the suitcase filled with the means to activate Russia's nuclear arsenal. Such an uneventful day contrasts greatly with today's demonstrations directed toward alleged election fraud committed by Prime Minister Putin's United Russia Party.

Signs of public discontent started weeks ago, however, when Putin was met with a hostile crowd at a Mixed Martial Arts competition in Moscow on Sunday, November 20. Global Voices covered the incident and cited Alexey Navalny's blog:

Blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny posted in his LiveJournal [ru] two videos of Putin's speech at the Olimpiysky Sports Complex in a post entitled, “The End of an Era.” In the videos, Putin stepped on stage after Mr. Emelianenko defeated American Jeff Monson and did not say anything provocative. Speaking Russian, Putin simply referred to Mr. Emelianenko as a “genuine Russian hero,” he congratulated him on his victory, and thanked him graciously.

It appears from the video that the crowd was not reacting to Putin's words but rather they were reacting negatively to his presence. Navalny's post has generated nearly 3,000 comments.

Daniel Bennett, a Ph.D. student based at the BBC and the War Studies Department at Kings College, London, announced on December 7 in the Frontline Club Blog that Navalny had been arrested:

Russian blogger and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has been arrested after participating in post-election protests in Moscow against the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In March this year, the Russian business daily Kommersant was forced to retract an article which attempted to discredit Navalny's exposure of large scale fraud at Transneft, the state-owned pipeline company in 2010. […]

Police officers detain a protester during a rally at Triumphal Square on Dec. 7. Photo by Maria Pleshkova, copyright © Demotix (07/12/2011)

Police officers detain a protester during a rally at Triumphal Square on Dec. 7. Photo by Maria Pleshkova, copyright © Demotix (07/12/2011)

The following day, on December 8, a blog associated with the American-based CNN wrote that Putin accused the United States of instigating the protests:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blamed the United States Thursday for encouraging opposition protests that have broken out since parliamentary elections Sunday.

His accusation followed comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week on Russia's election in which she called for a “full investigation” of apparent irregularities. […]

Speaking on state TV, Putin said Clinton had criticized the elections as “neither fair not free – even before receiving reports from international observers.”
This had sent a signal to opposition figures, Putin said, who “with the support of the U.S. State Department” then began “active work.”

The main event, however, came on Saturday, December 10. A blog associated with the British publication The Guardian posted a timeline of the day's events, which included a bulleted summary and a reminder of the upcoming presidential election:

5.12pm: We are wrapping up the blog now, at the end of an historic, but peaceful day of mass protests across Russia.

The protests come three months before Putin, who was president in 2000-2008 and effectively remained the country's leader while prime minister, is to seek a third term in office.

[…]

• Russia saw the largest political event of its kind in nearly 20 years with tens of thousands of furious protestors rallying across the country against alleged electoral fraud.
• An estimated 50,000 people gathered in Moscow and 10,000 in St Petersburg. There were around 1,000 arrests on a day that passed off largely peacefully
• Protestors pledge to take to the streets again on December 24
• Protestors demand annulment of Sunday's election results; the resignation of the head of the election commission and an official investigation into vote fraud.
• They also want new democratic and open elections and registration of opposition parties

Alexander Kolyandr quoted several protesters as well as a spokesman for the Moscow Police in a blog associated with the Wall Street Journal on Saturday:

Rustam Kerimov, 33, architect: “I have concerns that if new voting is announced, leftist parties and populists may get greater support. I’m a democrat, and I don’t see a real alternative to Putin now, as there are no real opposition candidates. But those in power must respect us, our votes, our will.” Mr. Kerimov says he never goes to rallies and was very surprised by the number of people.

[…]

Ksenia Korneyeva, magazine editor: “We just want to show that we exist.” Ms. Korneyeva defaced her ballot in the recent election with a large X. She carried a white chrysanthemum as a sign of peace at a peaceful protest.

[…]

Dmitry, 18, student: “I think the elections were falsified. Not completely, but in part. We want the results to be re-examined.”

[…]

Viktor Biryukov, spokesman for the Moscow police: “Everything is calm, and there are no extremists here, unlike at the previous gatherings. See for yourself.”

Sean Guillory of Sean's Russia Blog included a link to a Russian-language article, which announced the results of Sunday's Duma elections, in a December 9 post entitled, “Why are Russians Protesting Now?” After all, United Russia lost its super majority which is necessary in order to alter the Russian constitution at will: the final count shows United Russia with about 238 seats, the Communist Party – 92, Fair Russia – 64, and LDPR -56.

As a day of protests against Sunday’s Duma election begins in Russia’s Far East, the big question is why are people protesting now? After all, it’s not like this is the first Russian election with shenanigans, fraud, etc, etc.

In an effort to answer the question, Sean referred to an article found in Svobodnaya Pressa, which included a report by Leontii Byzov, a senior sociologist from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences:

Byzov: There are several overlapping factors. First, the rise of a new generation of young people who don’t remember the “trauma of the 1990s”. They are not afraid of change, it is more attractive to them than the “gilded cage” of Putinist stability. Young members of the middle class want social mobility and dream about meteoric careers.

Another factor is the swelling internal opposition within the Russian elite. In the 2000s, Putin served as a certain guarantor of balance between elite groups with completely opposite interests. Such as, for example, the siloviki and liberals in the government. Under President Medvedev this process became unbalanced. One was for Putin, the other for Medvedev. Those who stood with Medvedev felt the taste of power and property. They urged the President to remove Putin from the Premiership and run for a second term. For them, this was a chance that would have called for a struggle against the financial flows Putin’s people control. For control of Gazprom and other state corporations. Therefore, it was hard to presume that these groups would submit to defeat and quietly leave and put aside their plans for the next several years and, perhaps, forever. […]

GV's earlier posts on the post-election situation are here, here, here, here, and here. More links to the English-language blog commentary on the December 4 elections and the subsequent protests are here, here, and here.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

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