The parliamentary election last Sunday, when United Russia party won only a slim majority in the State Duma lower house, showed growing discontent regard the return of Vladimir Putin to Kremlin and also discontent with the political system he has dominated for 12 years. The protests come three months before Putin, who was president in 2000-2008 and effectively remained the country’s leader while prime minister, is to seek a third term in office. The public outpouring challenges his image, supported by state-controlled TV channels, as a man who won the affection of most Russians.
“The falsifications that authorities are doing today have turned the country into a big theater, with clowns like in a circus,” said (for AP journalists) Alexander Trofimov, one of the early arrivals for the protest at Bolotnaya Square, on an island in the Moscow River adjacent to the Kremlin. “I don’t think any citizen of the country can say he is very happy with anything. We don’t have an independent judiciary, there is no freedom of expression — all this combined creates a situation where people are forced to protest,” said demonstrator Albert Yusupov, who was dressed in civilian clothes but identified himself as a member of the Russian army.
According Reuters, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev conceded this week that election law may have been violated and Putin suggested “dialogue with the opposition-minded” — breaking from his usual authoritarian image. The Kremlin has come under strong international pressure, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling the vote unfair and urging an investigation into fraud. Putin in turn criticized Clinton and the United States for allegedly instigating protests and trying to undermine Russia.
The protesters have permission to stage a big rally in Moscow. But police, whose show of force doused protests after a rally on Monday turned into the biggest opposition rally in the capital for years, have vowed to stamp out any illegal actions. Police said there were at least 25,000, while protest organizers claimed 40,000. I talked online with some of protesters and they have approximated that it would be up to 30,000 people. Ilya Yashin, an leader of Russian opposition spoke about 60,000 participants. He added that : “It is a really victory !” Finally, is less important if they are 25,000…or 30,000, or 60,000…important is their message !
If Saturday’s protests are a success, the activists then face the challenge of long-term strategy. Even though U.S. Sen. John McCain recently tweeted to Putin that “the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you,” things in Russia are not that simple. The popular uprisings that brought down governments in Georgia in 2003, in Ukraine the next year, and in Egypt last spring all were significantly boosted by demonstrators being able to establish round-the-clock presences, notably in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the massive tent camp on Kiev’s main avenue. Russian police would hardly tolerate anything similar.
Update: 18.00 Moscow Time
The ambulance service says their services were not required at Bolotnaya Square. Three emergency crews were on standby at the rally. Russia’s human rights ombudsman praises police professionalism in handling the opposition rally at Bolotnaya Square, says the event is a lesson in democracy. The Moscow rally at Bolotnaya Square is over. Organizers have called for another protest gathering on December 17 and 24 at the same location. I think that Russian authorities gave a proof of wisdom and abstained from provocative counter-actions. Also, subscribe to the observation of Alexey Venediktov (editor of Moscow Echo) that was a protest rally rather ethical and not political. This means a good sign for civil society in Russia.