Putin loses his grip.
Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By CATHY YOUNG
"We went to jail in one country and came out in another,” Russia’s most famous blogger, 35-year-old anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, said on December 21 after serving two weeks’ detention for alleged disorderly conduct during demonstrations against vote-rigging in the parliamentary elections of December 4.
Protest in Bolotnaya Square, December 10
In the country where Navalny and his fellow activists came out of jail, protests against the Kremlin regime had swelled to levels unseen since the twilight of the Soviet Union; the authorities had given up trying to suppress them, and state-controlled television newscasts were providing respectful coverage. Even more shocking: In this new Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin could be mocked on national TV.
Only recently, Russia’s deeper slide into authoritarianism seemed near inevitable. Many thought the last hope for liberalization anytime soon had died in September, when Putin announced his plans to retake the presidency in the election due in March, elbowing aside his handpicked successor Dmitri Medvedev.
Yet there were signs of trouble in Putin paradise. The news of Putin’s impending return as president drew little enthusiasm from the public, perhaps because the “trading places” Putin-Medvedev farce was too blatant. In October, the biggest YouTube hit in Russia was a music video titled “Our Looney Bin Votes for Putin.” It showed grotesque scenes of patients and doctors in a mental ward dancing to celebrate Putin’s comeback, alternating with clips of police beating protesters.
In late November, Putin was booed—on live TV—at a mixed martial arts fight at a Moscow arena when he stepped into the ring to congratulate the winner. While the jeers were muted in later news broadcasts, the attempts at censorship and spin only worsened the damage.
To some independent Russian journalists, the boos signaled the beginning of the end for Putinism. At the time, most dismissed that prospect as wild-eyed wishful thinking. A month later, it looks less implausible.
On December 4, United Russia garnered 49 percent of the vote—down from 64 percent in 2007—in a heavily stacked parliamentary election where most opposition parties were kept off the ballot by various ploys. On the face of it, the ruling party’s losses offered little encouragement to pro-freedom forces. United Russia still got enough votes to retain a slim majority in the next Duma, since some smaller parties fell below the 7 percent threshold for getting seats. The three other Duma parties are of the “loyal opposition” type that usually toe the line.
Many observers, however, such as Carnegie Endowment analyst Nikolai Petrov, argued that the real impact of the election had nothing to do with seats in the Duma: What mattered was the symbolism of the ruling party failing to get even half the vote. Suddenly, change seemed possible.
It was this sense of new possibility that drove the protests sparked by reports of rampant electoral fraud. On December 10, tens of thousands gathered on Bolotnaya Square in downtown Moscow; the crowd was officially estimated at 25,000 and unofficially at up to 150,000. The overwhelming majority were not dissidents or activists but professionals, managers, and white-collar workers—Russia’s new middle class, once the base of the Putin regime, perceived as the guarantor of stability. Today, more and more of these people chafe at the corruption and the petty tyrannies of a power structure that treats them as subjects rather than citizens.
While Medvedev has promised an investigation of vote-rigging, there is virtually zero chance that the protesters will succeed in their demand for a new vote, despite backing by the European Parliament. The real impact will be on the presidential election in March: If protests continue, the Kremlin will be under pressure to provide at least the appearance of competition. Puppet candidates aside, keeping genuine opposition figures off the ballot may become difficult.
So far, the momentum of protest shows no sign of slackening—and the government’s ham-fisted reaction suggests that it will not. In the days after the election, the Kremlin tried a crackdown, with fairly toothless measures—such as two-week jail sentences—that angered more than they deterred. Navalny’s stint behind bars raised him closer to political stardom.