A placard is seen in front of a police cordon during an opposition protest in St. Petersburg on February 25, 2012. Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk
When Russian activists applied for a permit to stage a rally in Moscow the day after parliamentary elections on December 4 they expected about 500 people to attend. Widespread allegations of electoral fraud and a growing sense of disillusionment with the ruling party and Vladimir Putin, however, inspired more than 5,000 people to take to the streets. “It was as much a surprise for the organizers of that particular rally as it was for the Kremlin,” says Tanya Lokshina, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow. Five days later more than 50,000 Muscovites took part in a second rally. Even larger protests were held on December 24 and February 4. Last Sunday, in what was perhaps the most ambitious action yet, some 35,000 protesters formed a human chain along Moscow’s ten-mile Garden Ring Road, which encircles the city center. Many of the participants brought their children as well as candy, tea and cigarettes to share, white carnations and balloons, and even their white pets—cats and dogs—white being the symbol of peaceful protest.
“I would say that right now, this week in particular, the mood in Moscow is rather festive,” says Lokshina. “People are celebrating. What they’re celebrating, in part, is that for the last three months the momentum was never lost. People did not get tired. People did not go back to passivity. People did not go back to the privacy of their own kitchen. They’re still ready to take to the streets. They’re still ready to make their voices heard.”
Which is part of the paradox of Sunday’s presidential elections. Though many are demanding fundamental changes to the political process—free and fair elections, fewer obstacles to registering political parties, and the direct election of regional governors, to name just a few—when voters go to the polls they will be reminded of just how carefully managed Russia’s democracy is. Other than Putin himself the usual suspects—Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party showman Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Sergei Mironov of the loyal Just Russia Party—are all running in what has become a kind of photo op for the Kremlin (the list of candidates looks pretty much like it has for every electoral cycle since 2000). The only outlier is billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov who has exhibited an independent streak in recent months but is better known for his close ties to the Kremlin.
There is little doubt that Putin will win. But it may come at great cost. Whether he wins in the first or second round his authority has already been greatly diminished (The head of Russia’s Levada Center, a widely respected independent polling agency, recently described Putin as a “weak authoritarian leader”). In addition, as Timothy Frye of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute points out, “The two things that have helped him—high growth rates and high approval ratings—are not coming back. He can try to distance himself from United Russia and he can try to criticize the state corporations but of course these are all products of his tenure. And United Russia has, I think, been quite discredited by the parliamentary elections. So Putin will be governing in an environment that is unfamiliar to him.”
He now faces a much different country than the one he has ruled virtually unchallenged for the last twelve years. Indeed after just three months of sustained protest the conversation in Moscow has shifted from one of how long Putin will reign—he could conceivably stay in office until 2024—to how long he’ll be able to hold on to power.
“It used to be the case that Putin would be there forever and ever—nobody ever talked about any alternatives,” says Andrew Wilson author of Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World. “Everybody’s talking about alternatives now. That taboo is broken.”
But that doesn’t make the opposition’s task any easier. In an e-mail, Ilya Faybisovich, one of the young organizers of the December protests, said that the post election strategy remains somewhat vague. Some of the more prominent leaders have called for the formation of a “mega-party” capable of incorporating the diverse interests of the opposition movement, from nationalists and liberal democrats, to communists and the so called non-political, under a single umbrella—one that could challenge United Russia and field its own candidate in a future presidential election. But this is not without its own risks. According to Lokshina such a party could play into the hands of the Kremlin, especially if the various factions are unable to maintain a unified front.