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What is Happening in Russia?

A Timeline of Recent Events

On September 24, 2011, it was announced that Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who served as president from 2000 – 2008, and has been prime minister since 2008, would once again run for president in March of 2012, with current president Dmitri Medvedev to serve as his prospective prime minister. This effectively meant that Russians would be faced with 12 more years of Putin, since there are no viable contenders for president. To add insult to injury, Putin also added that this arrangement had been the plan all along, and was decided “several years back.”

Following this announcement, an unprecedented series of anti-government ‘booings‘ occurred throughout the massive country.

On November 3, 2011 a spokesperson for the ruling United Russia political party was booed off stage at a rock concert  in the Siberian coal mining town of Kemerovo when he thanked the band on behalf of the party.

On November 20, in an extraordinary display, Putin himself was booed when he made an appearance at a mixed martial arts match in Moscow. This had never happened before, and made international news headlines. Russia’s state-controlled T.V. news censored out the booing, but the incident was captured on amateur video, and quickly went viral across Russia via YouTube.

Putin is booed in Moscow. The audience only applauds when the victorious Russian fighter’s name is mentioned (his competitor was American).

Also in late November, United Russia was booed in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city in the Urals, and in St. Petersburg.

Prior to the December 4 parliamentary elections, the Russian government, perhaps fearing that this new rise in resentment would manifest into less votes for United Russia, began harassing election monitors and many websites for political and media organizations. LiveJournal, the most popular blogging site in Russia, also came under attack on election day.

Many election violations occurred, and were officially documented by the monitoring organization Golos. Many more were caught on video and posted on YouTube. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the polls were slanted in favour of United Russia, and reported voting fraud. The voter fraud wasn’t in of itself abnormal, but it was worse than normal, and much better documented.

One of the many examples of election fraud captured and posted on YouTube. An election official fills out ballets for United Russia.

Despite the intimidation and fraud, and indeed in part because of it, many angry Russians came out to cast their ballots, and many also volunteered to be election monitors. Maria Lipman, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center describes the “unprecedented outbreak of antigovernment mobilization:”

Suddenly, the generally depoliticized younger constituencies rushed to take part in the vote—with the sole purpose of undermining the party of swindlers and thieves. Anything went—taking the ballot home, tearing it up right there at the precinct, writing something funny or insulting on it as a way of making it invalid, or voting for any party included on the ballot regardless of what it stood for.

The result was that United Russia went from occupying 64% of the seats in the Duma to just under half.

Immediately after the election, on December 5 and 6, there were small demonstrations in protest of the fraud, numbering 5,000 – 6,000 people, chanting “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia without Putin!” Nearly 1,000 were arrested (including the popular dissident blogger Alexey Navalny).

On December 10, an astonished world watched as a much larger protest of 50,000 people took form on Bolotnaya Square in the centre of Moscow,  making international headlines (but were completely ignored by Russian state-controlled television for at least a week). Smaller protests took place in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Irkutsk, and Tomsk, among other cities. Nothing even close to this large had been seen anywhere in Russia since at least the 1993 constitutional crisis.

December 10 protest in Moscow. Photo credit Ridus.ru

Two weeks later, on December 24, an even larger protest, with perhaps 100,000 participants, was staged on Sakharov Avenue in Moscow, showing that a political movement had in fact started, and it had legs.

December 24 protest in Moscow. Photo credit Ilya Varlamov.

Journalist Julia Ioffe describes how the second protest became more sophisticated: “The opposition has banded into various squabbling organizational committees; it has learned how to handle negotiations with the mayor’s office; how to raise money for sound equipment; how to give people a say in the lineup of who will address them at the protest; and how to better harness social networks into disseminating information.”

The protesters actually passed a resolution calling for a new election under reformed electoral laws and the dismissal and investigation of election commission chief Vladimir Churov, among other things. Putin rejected the call to review the election results, and accused the opposition of having unclear goals.

Moscow was flooded with tens of thousands of extra Interior Ministry troops, but they wisely chose not to use violence to put down the demonstrators.

Putin blamed the United States for instigating the protests and even accused them of paying the protesters (However, in reality, the Kremlin actually paid pro-Kremlin counter-protesters to stage their own demonstrations). He also ridiculed them by comparing them to the lawless Bandar-log monkeys from The Jungle Book, and said their white ribbons looked like condoms.

Protesters use Putin’s mocking comments against him

Opposition leaders such as Boris Nemtsov, Gennady Gudkov, and Alexey Navalny have been victims of smear campaigns, possibly orchestrated by Russian security services.

Medvedev initially downplayed the scale of electoral fraud, calling Vladimir Churov, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission widely blamed for electoral violations, a “wizard.”

However, upon re-evaluation, Medvedev, in an effort to appease the protesters, announced the prospect of a modest set of reforms on December 22. These included a return to direct election of regional governors, a loosening of rules for registration of political parties, and the introduction of an independent public television channel.

On January 16, Medvedev introduced a bill to the Duma that could restore direct gubernatorial elections in Russia as soon as May of this year. However, the Kremlin would likely still be able to approve the elected candidates, so this “reform” is mostly cosmetic, designed to appease Putin’s critics, with very little substantial effect.

The Kremlin’s political mastermind and spin doctor Vladislav Surkov, hated by the protesters, was removed from his position on December 26. Surkov was the architect of Russia’s “managed democracy,” and believed that the unique immensity of Russia demands highly centralized power. His removal is seen by many as a concession to the protesters (though he has been appointed to a less influential position as one of Russia’s seven deputy prime ministers). However, Surkov was replaced with a senior United Russia member and Putin loyalist, who may actually be even worse.

Former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev advised Putin to step down on the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy on December 24.

On Orthodox Christmas day (January 7), the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, publicly advised the Kremlin not to ignore the protesters, and to change state policies according to their desires.

The presidential election will be on March 4. According to the latest poll, 45% of Russians would vote for Putin. If he receives less than 50% of the vote in the election, he’ll be forced into a runoff with the candidate who receives the next highest votes, which will further hurt his credibility and his image of invincibility. His approval rating has dropped from a spectacularly high 81% in 2007, to 68% at the beginning of 2011, to 61% last November, to 51% in December.

The next protest is scheduled for February 4 on Moscow’s downtown Garden Ring Road, and over 20,000 people have already signed up on the protest’s Facebook page. However, city officials announced on January 20 that they won’t allow such a large of a protest in central Moscow because of “security concerns.”

It is yet to be seen whether these large protests will continue, dissipate, or evolve, and how Russians will react when Putin inevitably wins the presidential election in March.

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