The Russian Protests
On Monday, December 5, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released an International Election Observation report about the Russian Federation, State Duma Elections. The report concluded that “the elections were marked by a convergence of the State and the governing party,” (the United Russia Party (UR); that the media was skewed in favor of UR, with all channels but one favoring it in their broadcasts; that “campaign materials for United Russia and voter information materials in Moscow bore a clear resemblance to one another” (they were indistinguishable); that there was “last minute pressure and intimidation of a key domestic observer group”; and that the counting process was “characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulations, including several serious indications of ballot box stuffing.” (And the list went on . . .)
The report findings were nothing new in the aftermath of a Russian election day—United Russia has monopolized the Russian government since its inception in 2001, and rigged elections have become typical and expected in Russia. What was novel about the election fiasco (something that came as a huge surprise to most people who expected these elections to pass unnoticed like they tend to do in Russia), was that United Russia turned out to be so unpopular with the Russian people that even after a severe manipulation of the voting results, it still took a 15% plunge in the polls, barely raking in 50% of the vote.
In response, Russian citizens did what no one expected them to do—they took to the streets and started protesting against Prime Minister (soon to be president) Vladimir Putin and his party, chanting that he was a thief, and calling for the UR to get out of the Duma. Prior to the election it was hard to tell that a campaign was even going on in Moscow because campaign efforts, both on the part of the Kremlin, which obviously got too comfortable with its ability to manipulate votes, and from the opposition, which did not see any chance of success, were so feeble. But, the election that was supposed to pass by without so much as the bat of an eye from the Russian people, ended up piercing through their apathy and igniting a real movement.
The Guardian columnist Miriam Elder, who has been attending the protests since they started on Monday night, tweeted, “Never seen such a demo in Russia, 1000s of young people. Start of something.”
Truckloads of police poured into Moscow and officers started to arrest protesters. The notorious anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who gained celebrity status in Russia with his anti-corruption blog Rospil.info—a WikiLeaks-like hub for the disclosure of information—and for famously nicknaming United Russia “the party of swindlers and thieves,” disappeared from the protests soon after giving an anti-United Russia speech on Monday night.
Navalny was taken away in a police van and at first, he was tweeting picture messages from inside—“sitting here in the OMON [police] bus! They say hi!” After a few hours the tweets stopped. “No one knows where @navalny is. His lawyer heading to Novaya Ploschad court so going there. Nashi mtg is nearby.” Elder tweeted.
The next day another picture message was sent from his twitter account: Navalny’s alive!
We soon found out that Navalny, along with the young opposition leader Ilya Yashin, was given the full sentence for “defying Russian officials”—a 15 day detention, which he plans to appeal.
Given Navalny’s popularity with the Russian people, commentators are calling his detention a “huge political mistake.” In a Moscow Times column published on November 30, the journalist and pundit Yulia Latynina called him “the only electable leader in Russia.”
Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the police headquarters to protest Navalny’s arrest.
Earlier today, Rospil’s lawyer tweeted a six page report (hopefully an English translation will be available soon) about Navalny’s time in custody. Apparently he was standing peacefully in a group, not blocking any roadways, when the police pulled him away and dragged him into the bus. He was denied a lawyer and then, without official reason, secretly transported to a place outside of the city in a car with a masked driver—he was held outside the city (without food) until he was brought back to Moscow for his court hearing the next day.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, alongside the angry protestors, thousands of pro-Kremlin youth gathered nearby in celebration of United Russia’s “victory,” waving Russian flags and holding up signs. They outnumbered the protestors and worked with the police to help disband them (“an anti-revolutionary force,” if you will), as the police arrested hundreds of people from the opposition group, detaining journalists and pedestrians alike.
According to Facebook, the numbers of opposition protestors are only increasing—there are 14,000 signed up for the protest on Saturday. However, in typical Kremlin fashion, the Revolutionary Square, where these sanctioned protests were scheduled to take place, has been scheduled to “close for repairs.”
Is this movement the precursor to a revolution in Russia? Or will the end result be similar to what happened in Iran in 2009, when citizens tried to oust Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after a similarly rigged election and failed? For now, it seems like this movement will raise awareness and cause complications for Putin and his party, but, given the fragmented nature of Russian society, and the lack of a cohesive opposition movement, the possibility of a real regime overthrow, and move toward democracy, is most likely pretty far off.
Navalny’s speech and on the evening of his arrest:
Protestors chanting anti-UR slogans:
Moscow police clashing with protestors:
Protestors and Pro-Kremlin youth at the protest in Moscow (pro-Kremlin youth are draped in Russian flags):