Opposition rallies against recent elections that culminated in a massive demonstration in Moscow this weekend are a major “watershed” in Russia’s post-Soviet social and political development that the country’s leadership must reckon with, analysts said.
The rally in Moscow on Saturday, attended by tens of thousands of relatively young, well-dressed, educated “mainstream” people rather than a few hundred marginal politicians and their followers, demonstrated that average Russian people in large numbers have real questions for the country’s leadership. They are not interested in burning down the state but rather in making their voices heard. And this, political experts say, is a force that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitry Medvedev and other top Russian leaders cannot afford to ignore.
“I consider this a remarkable and watershed event in our society. After 1989 and the 1990s, there were no such mass actions,” Valery Borshchyov, a human rights activists, told RIA-Novosti after Saturday’s nationwide rallies. “People acted in solidarity against electoral fraud and for a rerun of the elections.”
Both the authorities and the opposition were able to meet each other halfway as was evidenced by the calm nature of the Moscow rallies and the absence of a tough police crackdown on protests in most Russian regions. Now the ruling elite’s main task is to build an effective political dialog with society.
The rally in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on Saturday, which Moscow police say gathered 25,000 and the rally organizers say brought together over 100,000, was the largest-scale opposition action since Putin came to power in 2000. It was the latest in a series of protests which began in Moscow on Monday, the day after the elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, and continued in Moscow and other parts of the country the following two nights.
Prior to Saturday’s protest, opposition groups had criticized police for using excessive force against peaceful dissenters. In sharp contrast, the Moscow rally this weekend ended with protesters applauding the police who behaved, all seemed to agree, with remarkable restraint.
For honest elections
The protesters’ main demand, which united representatives of the entire political spectrum, was a review of the results of the elections, in which the ruling United Russia party got 49.32% of the votes, the Communist Party 19.19%, A Just Russia party 13.24%, the LDPR 11.67%, Yabloko 3.43%, Patriots of Russia 0.97% and the Right Cause party 0.6%, according to final data published by the Central Election Commission on Friday. The opposition, including opposition factions in parliament, believes that the official electoral data were falsified and that the day of voting itself was marked by alleged massive breaches of electoral legislation, including ballot stuffing and the removal of observers from polling stations.
For the first time in Russia’s political history, massive protests were coordinated outside traditional political structures, using social networks where people independently organized groups, agreed on where and how to express their dissatisfaction with the election results. This fact, and also a mere look at the rally participants in Moscow showed that the protest activity was staged not by social groups who are regularly angry at the government – pensioners and low-paid workers, for example – but by educated and relatively “well-to-do” young professionals who have as much interest as the country’s leaders in seeing stable social, economic and political development but who have, until now, lacked any organized political force.
“The protest movement exists and it has manifested itself, in particular, today,” political analyst Mikhail Remizov said following the Moscow rally on Saturday. “What we see is a movement of civil rather than political protest. We are talking about citizens who are advancing their demands to the incumbent power but do not want it replaced.”
The main demands heard at the rallies included cancellation of the December 4 vote results and organization of an election re-run, a recount of votes at all pollilng places where complaints of fraud were registered and the sacking of Vladimir Churov, head of the central election commission.
“We have the right to demand that law-enforcement agencies open criminal cases against thousands of thieves in electoral commissions,” Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, told the protesters in Moscow. This statement, along with other similar pronouncements by those who spoke at the meeting, drew applause from the crowd.
Saturday’s demonstration also marked the first time in years when representatives of rival political parties were able to stand side by side in one location, temporarily putting aside their disputes and personal animosity. This can be regarded as a victory but assigns a complex task to the opposition to look for a compromise and a single political platform for dialog with the authorities, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, not to smother society’s awakening self-consciousness by party feuds, experts said.
“This is a serious success of the opposition but we need to understand that these people are not from one political group; there were representatives of completely different groupings. That is why, you can’t assign the success to any particular opposition force,” Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst and member of parliament for the dominant United Russia party in the outgoing Duma, told RIA-Novosti.
Readiness to hear society is the authorities’ strength, not weakness
Political scientists say that the authorities should respond to the demands advanced by the people disagreeing with the election results, which would be the most correct reaction to the protests, instead of ignoring public discontent. This response will help ease protest and strengthen the legitimacy of the legislative bodies of power.
In particular, political scientist Valery Khomyakov believes that the manifestations held by Muscovites are a sort of a test to show “how wise the authorities are.” In his opinion, the authorities should declare that they will examine all the violations in detail and the culprits will be punished.
“If the authorities act like this, the rally activity may subside,” he said.
“Until recently, the authorities did not hold a substantive dialog with the opposition, suppressing street protests by forceful methods. In particular, during unauthorized rallies held by the opposition on Monday and Tuesday in Moscow, about 600 people were detained, according to official data. On December 4-7, a total of about 550 protesters were detained in the center of St. Petersburg. Dozens of people were detained in other Russian cities.
However, closer to the end of the week, evidence emerged that the authorities were ready, if not to hear, then at least to avoid the tough use-of-force scenario against those willing to express their dissatisfaction with the elections. In Moscow, the city authorities promptly agreed the holding of a massive protest rally and organized a comfortable corridor for the opposition to move from Revolution Square where initially a small rally was planned to Bolotnaya Square. This relocation was not interpreted by the City Hall as an unauthorized march. Oleg Orlov, chairman of the council of the Memorial Human Rights Center, told RIA Novosti that the agreements between the rally organizers, on the one hand, and the city authorities and the police, on the other hand, were observed ideally in Moscow on Saturday.
Moreover, not a single person was detained in Moscow while only about a hundred out of several dozen thousand protesters were detained across Russia. The police acted most toughly in St. Petersburg but there only about 30 people were detained.
Society longing for politics
Markov believes that society has come to “miss” active politics and this bodes an active and tight presidential campaign at the beginning of next year.
In Markov’s opinion, the authorities should respond because if they ignore the protest movement, protests will only grow. “This is just simple: you need to listen to the people’s main demands, i.e. to stop talking and start doing. It is necessary to return to the political dynamics present in the country during Putin’s first term.”
Putin, who had been the “face” of United Russia for many years, has already put forward his candidacy for the presidential elections in March 2012. He has also started building a base on another, broader group – the All-Russian People’s Front.
Political scientist Remizov said possible fears within the country’s leadership circles that any steps to review the vote results or open criminal cases against the offenders of electoral law could be regarded as weakness or concessions to street protesters were unfounded.
“Putin is quite a strong leader to have the possibility to do it in a way that this does not look like a concession. As a rule, a package of decisions is adopted in cases like this to seize the initiative,” the political scientist explained.
He also said that the protesters had come to the square believing that they would surely be heard.
“Today these people are confident that they have been heard and if they get an adequate response from the authorities, this may deprive further protest actions of sense,” Remizov said.
The organizers of the rally on Bolotnaya Square have already announced that they intend to hold a similar action in two weeks’ time, on December 24.