Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Russian Protests, Round Two

Call it an unwanted early Christmas present for Vladimir Putin.  Last Saturday, a crowd of perhaps as many as 100,000 people gathered in the streets of Moscow to protest against the Putin regime and parliamentary elections widely viewed as stolen; smaller rallies occurred in other cities across Russia.  It was the second time since the December 4 elections that Russians took to the streets in mass protests, and a sign that anger over the elections directed towards the Kremlin was not subsiding. 

The rallies on the 24th were the second state-sanctioned protests since the elections earlier in the month.  Officials in the Kremlin tried to downplay the impact of the rallies, and the amount of anger in the public, by apparently under-estimating the size of the crowd gathered on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue.  The size of the crowd was officially put at 25,000, though one reporter from the BBC said that it appeared there were more people gathered than there had been at the previous rally, attendance at that rally was said to be 50,000; the stretch of Sakharov Avenue where the rally was staged is said to hold more than 100,000 people.  Video from the event showed a packed street, as well as some clever signs.  My personal favorite was one oversized placard, written in English, that said “Where's my money Hillary?”, an allusion to a charge made by Putin that the protesters were being paid by “Western” governments, and by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, in an effort to undermine the Russian state.

It seems though that Putin & Co. will have to come up with some better rhetoric if they hope to diffuse the protest movement in Russia.  That the opposition was able to organize a second, even larger, round of protests mostly through the Internet, is a clear sign of the depth of disapproval directed towards the Kremlin and Putin.  The protesters are promising to stage a third series of rallies sometime in mid-January after Russia recovers from the New Years – Russian Orthodox Christmas holiday season, which typically brings Russia to a halt from the end of December through the first two weeks of January.  According to a poll of those in attendance at the December 24th rally, nine-out-of-ten say they will attend another protest rally in the future.

But even though the protest movement seems to have legs, for the moment at least, it seems to lack a leader – at least it lacks someone who could pose a serious challenge to Putin in the presidential elections which will take place in March.  While each of Russia's three official opposition parties – The Communists, the Liberal Democrats and A Just Russia – are all expected to field candidates, it is unlikely that the opposition turning out in the streets across Russia will coalesce around any one of them.  Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has announced that he too will be a candidate in the elections, but he is still being regarded with suspicion as a candidate planted by the Kremlin to draw off opposition votes.

And the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, weighed in following Saturday’s rally, urging Putin to follow his lead and retire from political life.
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