A week or so before the Duma elections whose rigging has this weekend brought tens of thousands of Russians onto the streets in peaceful protest, I had a telling encounter with a stranger in a supermarket.
Curious to know the reason for the minutely-printed legalistic notices pinned up in the soft drinks section, I asked a fellow shopper, who explained that, because of a football match at the nearby Luzhniki stadium, sales not only of alcohol but all drinks in glass bottles were banned for the afternoon.
But the man, a smartly-dressed thirty-something, didn’t stop there. “You probably do not understand this because in your country you do not have an autocratic government controlling your life,” he continued. “Here we have only 12 more years of Putin.”
When dissatisfaction with a political regime reaches the stage that citizens vent their frustration to foreign strangers in supermarkets, it’s obvious a critical point has been reached. Russians – certainly the young or youngish well-educated Muscovites I meet – are sick to the core of being taken for granted, of having to live with the daily experience, big and small, of corruption either ignored by, sanctioned or – worst – conducted by the government claiming to represent them.
The familiar round of bribe-paying – anything from “fines” to traffic police for alleged violations to cash for university places or high marks – is grinding, depressing, degrading. But until recently, in my experience, Russians have described it with a sad shrug, and a sense of inescapability: “This is Russia”.
Until now of course. This weekend, some 50,000 people turned out in Moscow alone to protest at the corrupt conduct of the December 4 duma elections, whose “results” saw support for the ruling United Russia party crash from a two-thirds majority to a bare 50% (and this only after manipulation quickly highlighted in words and images on social networking and web news sites).
It’s worth emphasising here how significant that scale of protest is in Russia, where demonstration is often restricted not only by state intervention – refusing permission to gather or limiting protests to absurdly small numbers – but by individual citizens’ internal policing. When I posted on my Facebook page my intention to join Saturday’s demonstration in a square across the river from the Kremlin, a smart and highly politically-aware Russian friend rang me expressly to urge me to take care. “There will be nationalists and thousands of Nashi (the pro-Kremlin youth movement) there,” she said. “You know about demonstrations but not Russian demonstrations.” Another Russian friend echoed the warning: “It’s dangerous. Better not to go and not even be outdoors on Saturday.”
Many of the thousands in Bolotnaya Square will have felt the same, but this time their desire to show their frustration in public rather than in personal conversations or the virtual protest zone of vKontaktye (Russia’s Facebook) overcame their long-learned caution.
The elections, with their “carousel” systematic repeat voting, ballot stuffing, mysterious lost votes and shameless jamming of news and election monitoring websites, have provided the immediate trigger, of course. But the powerful sense of being taken for granted, almost laughed at, by the “vlasti” [powers – those in charge] took hold earlier in the autumn, when prime minister Vladimir Putin revealed his plan to run again (unopposed) as president, opening the prospect of another 12 years under his uncompromising rule (and by the way, he added, the arrangement with his tandem partner President Medvedev was cooked up a couple of years previously, with no one feeling the need to consult the voters).
No electorate is stupid, and Russians are smarter than most. Many of the older Soviet generation may remain resigned, fatalistic and fearful of challenging the system – and United Russia does have plenty of supporters – but younger people, facing the prospect of a dozen more years of stagnant political rule, did not take Putin’s news lightly. Time and again since September, Russians I know – teachers, friends, acquaintances, school students; many of them from the supposedly non-political 20-something generation – have spoken of their frustration, indignation and anger at having their country’s political future mapped out for them. They shrugged or laughed bitterly at the very prospect of the duma elections, which they universally expected United Russia to win handsomely (not least as no convincing opposition is forthcoming or permitted). Many spoke repeatedly of moving abroad, rather than see key career and family-building years overshadowed by more of the same corruption – adding to the existing brain drain that is a serious threat to Russia’s future success.
In essence, they were actively trying to distance themselves not from their country (even those wanting to move away), but from those running it – they wanted foreigners like me to know the government’s rule was not in their name.
When election day came last weekend, there was no sense of excitement or pride: where once “vibori” [elections] had the atmosphere of a prasnik [celebration], the day passed like any other. Those I know either didn’t vote, or discussed how best to vote for “none of the above”. One told how a friend had been sent to the polling booth by employers at his factory with instructions to photograph his ballot as proof of a United Russia vote. Even with widespread forced voting, I still suspect the turnout was nowhere near as high as the two-thirds officially claimed.
It was the audacity of the ballot-rigging, combined with the speed and efficiency with which the internet was used to catalogue it, that really brought Russian voters from private and online dissent onto the streets. Russians adore social networking – vKontaktye is huge – and in a media-controlled state they are extremely adept at using the freedom of the internet both to disseminate information and to get round obstacles (including paying for music and film, but that’s another story). Once the momentum grew, the organisation of protest was simpler in Russia than perhaps anywhere else – and evidence of growing support helped others put aside their caution even in the face of fairly heavy-handed arrests at an initial demonstration in Chisty Prudy, central Moscow.
The 50,000 or so who took to the streets, many – probably most – for the first time, want to see the elections re-run. They do not, and this is important, want a revolution in the Arab Spring sense (or the Russian one), no matter what hysterical outsiders may claim. They have had plenty of change over the last 20 years alone, they know exactly what turmoil is like, and they want their country to stay stable at a time of global volatility. But they want no more of the shameless manipulation, the taking them for idiots, the pre-packaging of their futures.
They are also, I think, excited by the feeling yesterday’s protest gave them. There are white ribbons and white carnations to wear, pin badges excoriating “the party of crooks and thieves”, witty handmade slogans, and thousands of young people all together on the street – and the state, despite a menacing-looking police and army presence, has let them do it. It’s cool, and it’s heady – the websites and face book groups are full of thrilled personal accounts: one read “today was the best day of my life”. The demonstrators took a risk, and so far it’s paid off: they can feel a sense of power, achieved from the bottom up, not through the hall of mirrors that is Russian politics. Their numbers were great: too big to be twisted and misrepresented.
Will they get what they want? Maybe all bets are off now, and Medvedev has today promised an inquiry into the electoral fraud allegations, but I still find it hard to believe we’ll see fresh Duma elections: the concession is too great, the required admission of corruption too profound. Nevertheless, the government, including Putin (booed at a bare-knuckle fight last month in an early indicator of the scale of discontent) has been shaken by events, and cannot now maintain its comfortable assumption of a smooth power handover back to Putin in presidential elections in March.
Again, I wouldn’t bet against Putin’s return: it’s an incredibly long journey from street protests encompassing a broad range of discontent and political standpoints to a viable opposition candidacy. But whatever happens now, Moscow feels different. Things have changed. The future may be uncertain, but how much better than a certainty few wanted.
A footnote: The Moscow Times website quotes what must be one of the wittiest do-it-yourself posters of the demonstration. It read: “146 per cent of Muscovites want honest elections” – a reference to a report on election night in which the percentages for one region between them added up to 146 per cent.