Sunday, 11 December 2011

Protesting in peace

They came in their tens of thousands. On Bolotnaya square, just across the river from the Kremlin walls protesters gathered to vent their anger at United Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Their message was simple. We don’t want a revolution. We want a re-run.

Russia’s parliamentary elections in early December were widely seen as rigged. All over the country stories and video phone footage abounded of voters bullied or bribed and opposition parties refused the chance to compete on trumped up technicalities. When it came to polling day, even if it was hard to verify, there seemed to be even more evidence of massive electoral fraud. In polling stations across Russia’s vast territory there surfaced videos and accounts of ballot boxes stuffed with fake ballot papers and bogus voters casting multiple and even mass votes at one or many locations. Once the vote counting started, the stream of revelations pushed the outrage to boiling point. In one video which quickly became a youtube sensation an electoral official is filmed secretly filling in extra ballot papers.

All of the accusations centre round the ruling United Russia party. Both President Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, who intends to run for a third term as president next year, are closely connected to the party. United Russia and Putin may have brought some stability and order to Russia in the last decade. But as harassed and oppressed opposition groups point out, it’s come at the cost of real democracy.  In yet another embarrassing exposure Medvedev, astonishingly on national TV, thanked the head of the now hated electoral commission saying, “you’re a magician,.” “Oh, I’m just learning,” was the wry answer.

"Guys! Vacate the area!" a call for Putin and Medvedev to go. 
While the pixies of the polling station might have found the vote rigging funny, many others did not. They took to the streets in a series of demonstrations. The response was all too predictable from Putin and Medvedev’s government. Police went in with the batons against the noisy but peacefully protesting crowds. Busloads of clueless school kids were brought in from surrounding towns and in return for some money or a Macdonalds held a counter rally hailing Putin as a great leader and ‘celebrating’, yes this was the term used, ‘celebrating’ the successful conclusion of the elections. What joyful little democrats. Except they weren’t. Independent journalists went and asked the school kids what made United Russia was so great. They forgot their prepared answers and just shrugged amidst the whirling litter of big mac boxes.

Meanwhile state TV channels invoked disgust in their audience by patently ignoring the protests and lying through their teeth that the ‘celebrations’ were all that was going on. The internet was awash with images of pariah newsreaders and slogans (they’re more pithy in Russian) such as ‘in Russia we have this profession, to lie every evening’ (on the evening news).

Not all the opponents of the protesters abandoned their fanaticism so easily. The pro-Putin youth movement ‘Nashi’ (which means ‘ours’ in Russian) and who are often derisively (but justifiably) referred to as Nashists, were behaving in their usual vicious manner. Attacking the protesters or provoking them they then walked away while the police dragged the struggling opposition supporters into armoured trucks and carted them to prison. Most of the time though the police acted unaided. It was their provocateurs, says the protesters who were hiding amongst the crowd and it was the police who were all too ready to wade in batons flailing. Hundreds were sent to prison for terms ranging up to fifteen days for the very public disorder the police and pro-Putin fanatics had stirred up. A famous opposition blogger, called Alexey Navalnywas one of those detained. He told reporters on the street through his cell window that he was being treated well. The protesters maintain he and his fellow ‘political prisoners’ should never have been put there in the first place and should be immediately released.

The black and orange sign reads, "Putin, leave of your own will!" In one of those weird ironies of Russian politics, Putin is not actually and official member of United Russia, but the point is purely academic. Everyone knows the party is his creature.

Which is why everyone was so surprised when, at the biggest protest rally in Moscow for perhaps a decade on December the 10th there was not a single arrest or disturbance. Even state TV decided, or was told, this is too big to ignore and finally decided to show the demonstration. The crowd yelled their outrage and chanted slogans like, ‘re-election’, ‘Russia without Putin’ and ‘shame on you’. They shared with the politicians, poets and journalists on the small stage the realism that they couldn’t change the country drastically overnight. But they also had answers for United Russia and for Putin. This rally came just days after the first and violent ones. Navalny and many others were still in prison. Some had dubbed this the ‘white revolution’. Many carried white ribbons to symbolise a desire for clean and fair elections and to wash away the dirty malpractice which had infected their country. Days before Putin had seized on the word ‘revolution’. He said these people were a menace and tried to raise that old fall back spectre, foreign interference. The protesters, he said, were acting on a signal from the USA. Hillary Clinton had said, as had millions of others Russian and otherwise, that the elections were not free and not fair. Putin painted that as a signal to the protesters to the try and cause mayhem in Russia. Nonsense replied the protesters.

But Putin’s nationalist talk didn’t stop the huge rally. The police, to their credit, behaved moderately and with civility. Most observers were surprised and delighted (not a word usually associated with Russian politics) that a noisy rally with a very major and serious anti-government message was full of politics, passion, and peacefulness. All went home with a sense that something of lasting importance had been achieved. It’s unlikely, all agreed, that they will achieve their primary demand, a re-run of the election. As the speakers reminded the crowd though, even without that they won’t have long to wait until the white movement has some confirmation of whether they have been heard. There’s a presidential election in spring 2012. Before this week most had begrudgingly shrugged and concluded that Putin’s victory was all but inevitable. For the moment it still seems likely Putin will be president once more. But after this, just maybe he’ll have to try and win without using any ‘magic tricks’.  

"We demand a re-check of our voices!" That's the literal translation. But Russian is a creative language too. It's really a call for a re-run of the election, and a shout of outrage that democracy has been too long absent from Russia.