This past Monday, a day after the Russian parliamentary elections came to a close, some 6,000 young Russians headed to the streets in protest. Cries of general dissatisfaction towards Putin framed gutsy accusations of his party’s dishonest government and many declared themselves unwilling to accept any further results coming out of the Russian Kremlin. If Russians felt helpless and unable to affect changes in the government before, now they are just plain angry.
In light of this year’s global trend of revolutionary movements, the growing dissatisfaction towards Putin’s United Russia party has motivated many Russians to sober up and join the latest addiction. While the new wave of social movements and its irrefutable allure is hardly foreign to most university students and activists, pro-democracy rallies like the ones taking shape this week in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been amiss in Russia since the early 1990s. The present protests could thus provoke a heavy and staggering tension within the authoritarian democracy that Putin has created.
His cosmetic liberalization has won the public over in the past, but modern globalizing forces and increased communication among a nascent middle class are creating a swelling opposition that Putin can no longer afford to deny or cover up. The current protests are being heavily engineered through the use of new social media tools. The increased Internet penetration has allowed activists to reach a broader share of the population. In sheer frustration, the people are motivating each other to vote for any opposition to the leading party – and it shows.
The results of Sunday’s parliamentary vote show a stark decline in United Russia’s popularity. Foreign Policy magazine asserts that the party’s share of the Duma (the lower house of parliament) has fallen from 64.3% in 2007 to a current 49.5%, and the percentages of the ‘so-called systematic opposition’ has doubled. These results, of course, are finalized only after the government ‘corrects’ them. The latest edition of The Economist shows that voter turnout in some regions appeared to have exceeded 140%. One especially loyal region,Chechnya, sported a voter turnout of 99.5%, 99.48% of whom voted for United Russia.
The party’s loss in the Duma represents the growing challenge Mr. Putin will face as he prepares to enterRussia’s presidential election in March 2012. While most anticipate his victory, many are hopeful that amassing demonstrations will build up a stronger opposition and bring a higher level of legitimacy to the elections. The Russian riots have drawn international attention and many are calling for higher levels of transparency in the Russian government system. Many question whether United Russia could hold onto its majority in the Duma at all if they were not the ones manning the elections.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deemed the elections on Sunday unfair and fraudulent, and stated that the U.S.supports an expansion of rights inRussia. In response, Putin declared that it was her criticism of his regime which had spurred the current demonstrations and was pushing the protests forward. Dmitri Rogozin, Russian ambassador inBrussels, called her remarks ‘unacceptable’.
Not only is the growing critique of the movement seemingly unacceptable, United Russia finds the whole movement itself is as well. In an effort to cover up the building frustration towards the party, United Russia has tried to skew the protests in their favour. On Tuesday, the party bussed in its own protestors to drown out the opposition amassing inTriumfalnaya Squarein centralMoscow. The planned pro-Putin rally celebrated a ‘clear victory’ and chanted in support of his election in March.
Although Putin retains a sturdy grip on Russiafor now, the New York Times reports that Russian authorities are finding it more difficult to hide their thuggish behaviour in the Internet era. The government will have to enact extensive reforms if they want to avoid continued demonstrations and public frustration – but, then again, it might already be too late.