After Putin, Putin
The first protests after Putin’s victory were nothing like the merry mass demonstrations of the past months.
07 Mar 12

The first protests after Putin’s victory were nothing like the merry mass demonstrations of the past months. An unprecedented mobilisation of special forces from Moscow cracked down on the 20,000 protesters at the end of the opposition demonstration in Pushkin square last night.

In spite of the first exit polls that were suggesting a second round might occur, Vladimir Putin won the presidential elections again last Sunday with an imposing result of 63.75 per cent of the vote. He is thus set to remain the President of Russia for another 6 years, and will be able to run for one more 6-year-long mandate after that.

Allegations of fraud persist. Following the parliamentary elections 3 months ago, which were widely perceived to be unfair, a great number of Russians got involved in the election monitoring process. Twitter feeds exploded with reports of election rigging from the early hours of Sunday morning, and did not stop until after the closure of polling stations. People were eager to document and record occurrences of “carousels”, where groups of people vote several times at different polling stations, usually travelling in small buses.

Masha, an observer in central Moscow, said: “the fraud is still happening, but the methods have somehow changed, and we are struggling to figure them out. Commission members are using erasable pens, which is not illegal, but certainly odd.”

Gesturing to a nearby voter, Masha added: “That girl, for instance, looks underage, but we are not allowed to check her documents. Up to 8% of people who voted at this polling station did not appear in the official lists, but voted using “otkrepitelnye”, documents allowing them to vote somewhere else“.

Mihail, observer in Altufevo, in the northern outskirts of the capital, was happy with the way the electoral process was going in the late morning hours. In the evening he called to say that severe violations occurred: “A great amount of voters who were not in the lists this morning have been included in them during the day. A carousel of some 100 people came in a neighbour polling station. We complained to the regional election commission, but all our complaints were rejected”.

On the positive side, the past few days have been a time of great active citizenship in Moscow. The choice of around 30,000 Russians to monitor on the fairness of the elections in person produced a big amount of political public discourse. Elections turned from a boring, barely noticed appointment which is better to be avoided, into a participatory process in which all the information available is rapidly assimilated and shared for further use.

But this did not happen everywhere, and did not involve everyone. Rural areas remained virtually untouched by the new wave of political interest that is evident in the big cities. For those who visited it in the past, the turn around in Moscow is a great surprise. Nicolas, a Swiss broadcaster told me: “Back in 2006, the only people who were talking about Russian politics were us, the foreigners. Today, you can hear people discussing Putin, Prokhorov and Navalny in most of the cafés”.

Those who thought that this political awakening would make a visible impact on the result of the elections were bitterly disappointed. The evening after the polls were counted, activists hit the streets once again, and nationalist groups responded with counter-actions. The biggest protest took place on Pushkin square, in the heart of Moscow. The numbers were much lower than those of the December demonstrations, and yet it felt as though the square could not hold any more people. Nearby streets were clogged with an impressive deployment of special corps, and the general atmosphere was quite gloomy, a totally different story from the joyful mood of the Garden Ring eight days before.

The protesters did not try to march towards the Kremlin, as it was previously announced. Instead, many of them stayed on the square once the official protest was over, provoking violent reactions from the police. Among the arrested — and soon released — were anti-corruption lawyer Aleksey Navalny, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, Duma MP Ilya Ponomarev, Time magazine reporter Simon Shuster.

There are two things that are clear after the events of the past few days: protesters won’t stop their actions, until the whole of Russia is following them. What is less clear is Putin’s reaction to the discontent. Now that he cannot count on Medvedev’s image as a progressive liberal to balance his iron reputation, will he use good or bad manners to deal with those who question his legitimacy? The bright days of the protests may be over together with last night’s demonstration.