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Moscow Protests: For now or the future?

Protests took place in Moscow on Monday as people unhappy at United Russia’s manipulation of Sunday’s Russian Duma election took to the streets.

Numbers are difficult to judge, but it appears that around 5-6,000 people protested earlier in the day, breaking off into a smaller group of around 1,000 that then went on to Triumfalnaya Square. It was there that most of the trouble took place, and according to RIA Novosti, more than 250 people were arrested, including Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko’s deputy chairman and former Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

“I am outraged at the lawlessness that we saw on 4 December, with the false elections, and on 5 December,” Mitrokhin told reporters. “I am ready to call for the entire government, headed by Putin, to resign.”

Navalny tweeted this picture, saying "With my lads on the police bus. They all say hi,"
Others arrested earlier in the day included blogger Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin, both of whom were sentenced to 15 days in jail. At the courthouse Navalny told reporters: “There is not a single doubt that my case is under the special control of the party of crooks and thieves.”

Protests were also held in St Petersburg which attracted around 1,000 people, 150 of whom were arrested, and smaller protests were held in a number of other cities across the country.

The protests prompted counter-protests from pro-Kremlin activists, many from Nashi.

The protests, and criticisms of fraud throughout the election, have prompted some response from the Kremlin, albeit a pretty limited one. President Dmitry Medvedev has announced that there will be an investigation of accusations of electoral fraud claims, although he seemed fairly dismissive of most of the claims and took pains to stress that this was something that should be done after every election as a matter of procedure. Putin hasn’t directly commented on the protests, although he doesn’t seem surprised about protests and criticism if this Moscow Times report is anything to go by:

Corruption and embezzlement “are not a cliche for the ruling party, they are a cliche for the authorities” in general, Putin said.

“Think back to Soviet times and the people who were in power back then. All of them were also called thieves and bribe-takers,” Putin said, in a clear nod to United Russia’s reputation as the “party of crooks and thieves,” Interfax reported.

(An interesting choice, by the way, to compare United Russia’s Government to the Soviet Government. It’ll play well with those in the domestic audience who crave stability and familiarity, but it’ll wind up amny protestors and the foreign audience no end.)

Speaking of the foreign audience, there has been a quite excitable reaction from the international press, many of whom seem to be breathlessly hoping for a Russian Arab Spring (no longer do they refer to a colored revolution…) and choosing to focus on the crackdown and the sending of troops in to secure Moscow. My favourite headline was this, from the never knowingly under-stated Fox News: Carnage Breaks Out at Moscow Protests as Youths Square Off.

For all the hype, it’s almost possible to imagine that this week’s protests will build any real momentum. No matter how much breathless reporting we see, the protestors number no more than a few thousand in a city of millions.

However, the protests may have a longer term impact in raising the profile of election fraud among the wider population and in exposing some small cracks in the Kremlin’s resolve ahead of next year’s Russian Presidential election, which has the potential to be a much closer affair. You can imagine that there would be considerable anger if Putin were to pick up 51-52% of the vote in a first round ballot that sees the same obvious manipulation of ballots that we’ve seen this election in Chechnya and other similarly sycophantic regions.

The Communist Party’s candidate Gennady Zyuganov is most likely to finish second in the Presidential election. He and his supporters will have good reason to be very upset if he is denied a run-off due to electoral fraud. If Zyuganov has any sense, he’ll be closely studying these Moscow protests and thinking about how much impact they could have if they were backed by the full weight of the Russian Communist Party.

Then maybe the press will have something to get breathless (and even more confused than normal) over.


  • Putin’s ratings are relatively low compared to what he usually has, but no lower than in mid-2005 (when the gov’t monetized pensioners’ social benefits).

    I expect him to duly get his 60% vote on the first round, and for the usual suspects to begin screeching that it was far more rigged even than the Duma elections (ignoring that VVP is far more popular than UR).

  • If a candidate who would win an election with 51% of the vote manipulates the ballot to make it appear as thoughhe got 60% then shouldn’t the election be annulled anyway and the candidate arrested?

    Is the desire of the people toelect a criminal more important than the rule of law?

  • No, because that candidate has the support of the majority, and unless he is personally responsible for falsifications he is not a criminal. But falsification by 9% – really? Even if we take the lower-end exit poll, i.e. FOM’s 46%, that’s still less than 4% difference.

  • Even if we disregard the widespread allegations of fraud across the whole country, it’s difficult argue that a politician of Putin’s stature can’t be responsible personally for electoral fraud on the kind of scale we’ve seen in Chechnya et al. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to try and prove it in a court of law!

    As for opinion polls, it’ll be interesting to see how they trend over the next few months. I would be surprised if support for Putin continues to fall in the run up to the Presidential election, prompted by a growth in awareness of the problems with this election and the realisation that there are alternatives out there. Any fall isn’t going to be by a massive amount – I still expect Putin to be by far the most genuinely popular candidate in the first round – but I do think it will be by enough to make it a close run thing as to whether a second round of voting is required.

  • Things have reached a point whereby the west only has to say “massive fraud”, and it is presumed to be the case. Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman was in Moscow for the vote, with observers on behalf of the Jewish state. He claimed the vote was fair and that his observers saw no evidence of fraud. To the very best of my knowledge Israel is not an enthusiastic booster of the Putin regime, and although Israel and Russia enjoy a reasonably good trade relationship, Israel has been bluntly critical of Russia’s supposedly too-cozy friendship with Iran. Blatant suck-up would be an unusual role for Lieberman to embrace, especially considering his statement came into direct conflict with Hillary Clinton’s typical hawkish chunnering.

    The National Interest, a publication whose associate publisher is a former U.S. State Department official, suggests that “while Russia’s election campaign and its voting were marred in many respects, the results generally match exit polling from reliable agencies.”

    Lest anyone think he’s just another closet communist democracy-baiter, he was exactly right about U.R.’s presidential candidate back in August, while the Russia-watcher blogosphere was still twittering back and forth that the candidate would be Medvedev.

    Some of the bitterly disappointed over United Russia’s victory, regardless the actual margin, have ululated, “Why doesn’t Putin simply declare himself King?” If the first reaction to every election in Russia that does not result in the western-loving liberal candidate being carried aloft victorious on the shoulders of his party is “Rigged!!!! the elections were a sham!!!!”, I submit he has little incentive to do otherwise. As well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

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