The three-month “Moscow Spring”—a series of large, pro-democracy protests, from the first opposition gathering on Chistye Prudi on December 5th, to the latest anti-Putin rally on Novyi Arbat on March 10th—has changed Russia beyond recognition. Although Vladimir Putin was, as expected, declared the “winner” of the March 4th presidential election, the principal traits of his 12-year rule: invincibility, impunity (for the regime), and indifference (on the part of society), have been wiped out. His unchallenged rule is over. The tacit deal—economic prosperity in exchange for political freedom—that much of Russian society accepted a dozen years ago is off. The country’s educated and increasingly affluent urban middle class, which was the driving force behind the recent protests, is demanding a political voice.
Even by official results from the Central Electoral Commission, the majority of voters in Moscow, Kaliningrad, Omsk, and Vladivostok voted against Vladimir Putin. If past experience is any indicator, the loss of big cities marks the beginning of the end for authoritarian regimes: Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic after the Zajedno protests of 1996–97 is a case in point. Putin’s overall official result of 63.6 percent differs sharply from vote tallies verified by independent poll monitors across Russia: 53 percent from the League of Voters; 50 percent from Golos; 49 percent from Rosvybory; 48 percent from Citizen Observer. Parallel vote counts, though, do not tell the whole story. According to estimates by monitors, up to 20 percent of votes on March 4th were cast by people on “additional voter lists”—a hallmark of Russia’s 2012 election. This was an update on the old-fashioned “carousel voting,” on a much larger scale: people supposedly employed in enterprises “with a continuous work cycle” were allowed to vote outside their home precincts—multiple times at different polling places. How many such virtual “votes” were added to Putin’s official result on March 4th will probably never be known.
Other tricks included inventing non-existent addresses (whose non-existent residents were duly registered to vote), stuffing the ballot boxes, and rewriting protocols to “correct” vote-tallies. According to the League of Voters, 23 percent of its 5,000 monitors across the country reported violations of various kinds. This figure rose to 37 percent in Moscow, and to 47 percent in St. Petersburg.
As Putin prepares for his inauguration on May 7th, his opponents are planning a counter-rally on the streets of Moscow on the same day, to show the “new” president that he is not welcome. The opposition’s strategy, however, is shifting from street protests to a more institutional struggle. In the Moscow municipal elections held on the same day as the presidential vote, opposition candidates won a third of the seats. In October, several Russian regions will hold elections not just for legislatures, but also for governors—a key concession by the Kremlin in the face of December’s 100,000-strong protest on Bolotnaya Square. The new law on political parties—another December concession, set to be signed by the end of this month—will for the first time in years give new anti-Kremlin parties official registration and access to the ballot. As opposition leader Boris Nemtsov suggested, “This is not a sprint, it’s going to be a marathon.” “If this system took 15 or so years to be created, we need a few years—three, four, five—to dismantle it,” predicted another liberal leader, Grigory Yavlinsky. “The road will be long and hard, it will be no quick struggle, but we will do it all. Russia will be free.”
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