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The people vs Putin

Chantal Sundaram

March 27, 2012

The end of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012 in Russia saw the biggest anti-government demonstrations since Soviet times. The massive protests by ordinary Russians began in reaction to the Parliamentary elections of December 4, and continued through to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s presidential election ‘victory’ in March. Both events were marked by widespread electoral fraud.

February in Moscow saw angry crowds of more than 100,000 demanding fair elections. Putin’s election at the beginning of March was again greeted by allegations of voter fraud and protests by tens of thousands. The opposition argues that Putin received far less than the 64 per cent of the vote claimed, while the state and mass media largely back Putin. In early March hundreds of people picketed the offices of a state-backed TV channel after it aired a documentary accusing the opposition of paying anti-government protesters.

While vote-rigging was the spark, the protests in Moscow and across the country have been as much about Putin’s draconian regime itself: its rampant corruption, economic inequality, and the privatization of university education.

To thwart students from participating in the rallies, university exams and compulsory school events were scheduled to clash with protests, and the government even pressured its employees into attending a pro‑government rally on the same day as one of them. But these measures have been unsuccessful in stopping a new movement that could shift from street action into a more sustained opposition.

Like in Egypt, Russians are learning to overcome the legacy of fear and pessimism that stems from years of government repression. At the rally following Putin’s election, some advocated occupying Pushkin Square until their demands were met, bringing echoes of the Arab Spring to the streets of central Moscow. A thousand people remained in the square after the official protest had ended and attempted to occupy it, but it was cleared by huge numbers of riot police and hundreds were arrested.

But the desire to resist has not been so easy to clear away. Whether Putin will even last his whole term is now in question.

Like the Arab Spring, the pro-democracy movement has brought new people who have never protested before out into the street. Many are young, and for the moment there is no single, pre-determined leadership.

For many it is not the election exercise itself that is important, but rather the government’s hypocrisy at bothering to have an election at all, and then rigging it. How this sentiment can be linked with broader political issues, and with resistance to austerity and the stagnating economy, will be decisive—just as it continues to be in the Arab world.

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