The appearance of 5,000 to 10,000 people in the streets of Moscow on Monday to protest fraud in the December 4 parliamentary elections is more than just a surprising event. It signals the end of the era of Russian passivity.
Moscow, sated with easy oil money and politically cynical, has not seen a political demonstration this large in years. Whereas past protests dealt with freedom of assembly, an important but secondary issue in the Russian context, this one dealt with the core issue: the freedom of the authorities to falsify the vote.
The widespread intimidation, ballot stuffing, and multiple voting reported from precincts all over the country was hardly unexpected. According to an August poll by the Levada Center, only 4 percent of Russians believed that the upcoming elections would be completely honest, and 62 percent believed that United Russia, the ruling party allied with Putin, would use manipulation to inflate its results — which, by all accounts, is exactly what happened. (The pro-Putin Chechen Republic, which is ruled by terror, for example, gave United Russia 99.5 percent of the vote.)
But, despite a generous share of fatalism, anger with United Russia — described by many in Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves” — led many to cast protest votes for the Kremlin-controlled alternative parties, particularly the Communists, who doubled their vote, and Just Russia. The practical result is still the same. The Kremlin will control the state Duma just as it did before. But the rejection of United Russia is a signal that society is stirring and change is possible. The demonstrators who took to the streets to protest abuses that have taken place — at least to some degree — since 1991, divined the new mood and acted on it. Russia is awakening from its political torpor, raising the possibility that Russians will have a new chance to establish the democracy they tragically failed to create after the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His latest book, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past is just out from Yale.