Last Saturday Russia witnessed one of the biggest anti-government rallies of the past two decades. Just a few months ago the possibility of a protest this large seemed very unlikely. Putin’s confidence ratings remained high holding steadfast belief in the efficiency of a strong ruling hand over the country, although the support for his United Russia party had begun to deteriorate.
Unlike previous public rallies, the Saturday march was sanctioned by authorities and, more importantly, had received an unusually extended, but rather neutral coverage, on state-run channels. Thousands of policemen and paramilitary troops stood ready to deploy security measures against possible ‘violations of the public order,’ however, that no arrests or clashes occurred as this peaceful demonstration was enough to make an important point: Russian people’s votes do matter.
Tens of thousands of people joined the rally across Russia protesting against fraud in the parliamentary election, discontented over how the election was handled and refusing to settle for the same type of governmental attitude of turning a deaf ear towards their opinion for the next decade. People of different political opinion came to the rally, united in their frustration with the United Russia party, demanding re-election and dismissal of the Central Election Committee chairman, and chanting ‘Putin must go.’
The rally made it quite obvious that the existing political leadership underestimated increasing public discontent over multiple cases of power abuse in the country, including among others the dismissal of prosecution against high-level officials in cases of fatal traffic accidents, and the fraudulent election of the current Chairman of Federation Council of the Russian Federation. These and other examples clearly showed the negligence and disregard with which current political leadership treats the opinion of Russian citizens and their rights.
Many ask now whether United Russia and Putin stand a chance of political survival. According to an exit poll by the Institute of Social Studies, the ruling party gathered about 38 percent of the popular vote, which is more than 10 percent less than the official number issued, however, it still places Putin’s party ahead of others. In addition, pro-government supporters organized another rally, which according to some estimates garnered close to 25,000 people on Monday. Much of that support could be explained by the lack of strong opposition with a clear and consistent plan of action, as well as the fear of returning to the political and economic instability experienced during the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the Saturday rally has provided opportunities for a new opposition to emerge. Immediately after the Saturday events businessman and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, ousted from the liberal party Russian Cause in September, has announced his bid for presidential elections in 2012. Then, Russian ex-finance minister Alexei Koudrin said that he is considering forming a right-centered political party. Kudrin has recently left Kremlin over disagreement with Medvedev policies in September of this year.
One needs to be reminded that both, Prokhorov and Kudrin, come from Kremlin circles and their run for leadership has already been shadowed with suspicion over a possible Kremlin move to divert attention from critical issues at hand. This relation to the regime will definitely breed doubts among electorate in the future. Another question is whose interests this newly formed right-wing party will represent and how much vote it will be able to gather in Russia? The painful experience of the sweeping reforms of the 1990s is still vivid among Russia’s population, and so is a general distrust to the oligarchs reaching for political power.
What’s more, Russians tend to hold rather reserved attitudes towards opposition. November polls conducted by the Levada Center, a Russian independent polling and sociological research organization, demonstrated that for the most part, the Russian population remains very skeptical about existing opposition and finds that it rarely goes beyond simple criticism of the current regime to serious constructive proposals for improving the situation in the country. Hence, any opposition in the country will face a difficult task to win the confidence of the population.
In conclusion, last Saturday an empowered Russian population took a stand against fraud and corruption in the country. We will see in the coming months whether they have been heard in their demands for a change. Hopefully, the change will be timely and peaceful. As one recent Russian blog said, ‘no revolution is needed for a party that got 23 percent of popular votes to get 23 percent of the parliament seats and not 53 percent.’ Excellent point.