Vladimir Putin. Photocredit: World Economic Forum
Demonstrations in Russia over the weekend, in many cities, were the biggest political protests since Communism collapsed. They drew some 50,000 people in Moscow alone, reported the BBC , gathering on an island near the Kremlin where access could be easily controlled. The protesters are alleging widespread fraud in Sunday’s polls, despite the fact that United Russia (the ruling party) saw its vote share fall to less than half, though it remains the biggest party. More than 1,000 people were arrested. The anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny was imprisoned.
President Medvedev has ordered an investigation into the allegations of fraud. Vladimir Putin, who has been Prime Minister for four years, and was President between 2000 and 2008, was all set to return to the top job. He blamed the United States of America for creating unrest. Commentators are saying that Russia now faces a choice between opening up its processes, or cracking down on dissent; Russia is at a crossroads, and whilst Putin will probably stay in power, at least there are now ways towards democracy.
“I do not agree with either the slogans or statements heard at the rallies,” President Medvedev wrote on his Facebook page, quoted on the BBC.
“The time has come to throw off the chains. We are not cattle or slaves. We have a voice and we have the strength to defend it,” wrote Alexei Navalny on his blog.
What is Putin going to do? Is the Kremlin “trying to draw back from the brink?’ asked The Times editorial. Medvedev has been “derided” by Russians, who have no time “for the powerless puppet.” His “fine speeches” on corruption, crooked officials, and increased freedom and transparency “have disappeared into thin air.” At the polls, Russians saw “official lies, intimidation at the ballot box, the beating of protesters and the arrest of opposition activitists.” Putin has “given no sign” that he would make any concessions, nor that he’s insulted the younger generation. However, permission was given for the demonstration, even though it was moved away from the Kremlin, and “marshalled by 50,000 police.” And the official media broadcasted it. Is Putin “biding his time?” Is he trying to “defuse the tensions” and use bureaucracy to “crack down on his opponents?” He’s seen what’s happened in Egypt, and understood that states can’t control sociel media. But perhaps he does understand “that only a more democratic system … can underpin a return to the presidency.” But this latter explanation is “the least convincing.”
The elite must change. The electorate has finally expressed its “alienation from the ruling elite,” said Jonathan Steel in The Guardian. But will Putin continue to be soft? Russia is now facing budget deficits, like other major economies. Putin now has to bring “economic growth”, “better social services”, “the rule of law for citizens as well as businesses.” That’s really Russia’s trouble – it has no law. Its traveling students now feel ashamed of their rulers’ “criminality.” There needs to be “a large and sustained shift in elite attitudes.”
Putin will still win. Things are going “badly wrong” for Putin, said Shaun Walker in The Independent, ever since he announced he was returning to the post of President. The national mood has changed. Young Russians are getting angry, and are taking an interest; even despite the break up of protests and the intimidation of organisers. Putin, though, will “almost certainly win” the next election; but the current mood of protest can’t be ignored. The Kremlin faces a choice: open up and allow criticism, or “repress dissent.”
But democracy is round the corner. It certainly hasn’t “been a good year for despots,” said Tony Brenton in The Daily Telegraph. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have fallen; Yemen and Syria are on “life support.” There are parallels between Egypt and Russia – both running “shabby quasi-democracies.” Could we see Putin “on trial?” Most Russians view Putin as “a saviour” – though his methods were not “gentle”, the results have been “spectacular.” Living standards have risen, and a rigged system was “a small price to pay.” Putin does remain “extremely popular.” The West shouldn’t remain “silent,” and we should expect Russia to live up to the conventions that she’s signed. We’re not looking at a “Russian Spring,” but what has happened is that the regime has cracked. It won’t be long before “Russia takes its rightful place among the other European democracies.