December 10, 2011, was the day that, for all intents and purposes, marked the end of Vladimir Putin’s era. Russia’s strongman may survive in power for now, but the omnipotence and impunity to which he has grown accustomed in the past decade are decidedly over. Never again will the regime be able to ride roughshod over Russia’s citizens, knowing that the worst of its excesses will be met with apathy and silence. It was a day long awaited by the country’s pro-democracy movement and long-feared by Putin’s associates; a day skeptics—who like to theorize about how Russians are “unsuited to democracy” and “in need of a firm hand”—predicted would never come.
“Never again” was the central message of Saturday’s pro-democracy rally on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people gathered across the river from the Kremlin to demand the annulment of the fraudulent December 4th State Duma election and a new—free and fair—parliamentary poll. It was the largest rally in the Russian capital since 1991. Just as in Belgrade in 2000, Tbilisi in 2003, and Kiev in 2004, the Moscow protesters of 2011 came from across the political spectrum—liberals and nationalists, socialists and conservatives, and, most importantly, people who, until recently, have never been involved or interested in politics—united by a common demand for dignity and self-determination. There were no economic slogans; the people who gathered on Bolotnaya Square were mostly representatives of Russia’s growing (and increasingly affluent) middle class who are now demanding a political voice. The nonpartisan white ribbon was chosen as the symbol of the protest. Along with Moscow, thousands of people came out in dozens of cities and towns across Russia with the same demand of a free and fair election.
Though the underlying reason for the protest was Putin’s September announcement of his intent to remain in power for another twelve years—a fait accompli presented to a hundred million voters—the fraudulent Duma poll was, it seems, the final straw. Even though the ruling United Russia party failed to get a majority—its official result was 49.3 percent—the reality was more striking. According to the returns from polling places where independent observers were present, and where no violations were registered, United Russia’s actual result was around 31 percent. The rest was achieved through outright fraud, such as stuffing ballots and falsifying protocols. Within days, thanks to the Internet—which now reaches 46 percent of Russians—the stories of fraud quickly spread across the country. In effect, Russia is following in the path of previous “color revolutions” that began in protest at stolen elections.
“We couldn’t dream of this even a week ago,” opposition leader and protest co-organizer Boris Nemtsov wrote after the rally, “We have awakened a sense of self-dignity.” “They are saying that the campaign is over,” declared another opposition leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, “No! The campaign is just beginning—the campaign to constitutionally and legally remove Putin’s clique from power.”
For the first time in years, state-run television carried reports of the opposition protests. Riot police, usually busy rounding up pro-democracy demonstrators, stayed on the sidelines. As a St. Petersburg police official candidly told pro-democracy activists, “When there are 500 of you, we will break up your rally; when there are 20,000 of you, we will think carefully; and when there are 200,000 of you, we will join you.”
The next protest rally in Moscow is planned for December 24th. Organizers promise that it will be even larger than the first. Back in September, Putin’s decision to stay in power until 2024 was taken with shock and despair. Today, it is more often greeted with a laugh.