Russia‘s election day started badly. Early in the morning, three hours before the polls opened, the website of my newspaper went down after it was subjected to a distributed denial-of-service attack by unknown hackers.
An hour later, hackers attacked the site of Echo Moscow radio and a succession of other sites followed. “God, how scared they [the authorities] must be,” was the text message that went round as soon as it became clear that the hackers had attacked every liberal corner of the internet. Even the Russian thread on Live Journal came under attack.
It is unlikely that such a concerted, simultaneous attack on the entire cohort of liberal news outlets could have been carried out by amateurs. It was all done using the same technology that has in the past been deployed against the government websites of Estonia and Georgia.
Facebook and Twitter, as yet spared the attentions of our secret police, were practically ablaze with indignation, as details emerged of voting outrages: in Yekaterinburg mobile phone footage showed three teachers putting ticks on an entire pack of voting slips; in Moscow, students were paid for taking part in the ‘carousels’ – the buses shipping voters to multiple polling stations; in Barnaul, election observers from the independent monitoring movement Golos were prevented from attending voting stations.
At the same time, the state media and state-controlled television channels (and there are no truly national channels not under the sway of the Russian state) presented a parallel universe in which voters performed their duties in genial fashion and local authorities reported nothing untoward. It was a painful reminder of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union: “All the Soviet people voted as one for the CPSU”
And yet it became abundantly clear soon after polls closed that the Russian people had not voted as the party of power, United Russia, and its leaders Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, would have wanted.
Millions of people preferred to give their vote to anyone other than the party of power.
The result bore this out: despite the mass falsification and the utter domination of United Russia on the airwaves, the party’s share of the vote slid from 64% in 2007 to under 50%.
Yes, 30 million people (around one in four of the electorate) still pin their hopes on United Russia.
But this was not a vote for any party or ideology. It was a vote against. A vote not just against the faceless functionaries of the ruling classes, but against its leader, Vladimir Putin, who in March will once again attempt to return to the Kremlin for a third term.
This new protest wave is by no means limited to opposition parties. It has drawn in young people, who used to have little interest in politics. When the Medvedev-Putin tandem decided in September that the prime minister would become president and vice versa, young people were deeply offended that their opinion was not solicited. All at once, a generation understood it had two options: to leave the country, or to start the struggle.
The well known activist Aleksei Navalny, whose blog
is read by more than 60,000 people, put forward a strategy to break up the monopoly of United Russia in parliament. He came up with a rallying cry which quickly became the slogan of Russian protest: vote for anyone other than the party of crooks and thieves. This name – the party of crooks and thieves – has stuck to the party and its millionaire deputies, many of whom were state officials before they became MPs.
It is through the internet that Russia is finding its protest voice. Golos has posted a “violation scorecard” in which it has invited citizens to post information about irregularities. After two months of the campaign, there were more than one million posts. The state responded by wheeling out its heavy artillery, accusing Golos of acting for foreign spies. Unsurprisingly the Golos site was also shut down by hackers.
This reaction, and the hack attacks on other sites including the New Times amply demonstrates the authorities are rattled, they fear the internet generation and are scrambling to deploy old KGB methods: shut down, intimidate, ban.
But they were too late. Just as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi were too late. If Putin doesn’t want to share the fate of these old comrades, he should understand that on 4 December young Russia told him: “nyet!”
Yevgenia Albats is editor-in-chief of the New Times, an independent, Russian language political weekly