A fraudulent election, protests and arrests, is Russia “waking up”? 4 December witnessed parliamentary elections, which on official figures was won quite comfortably by Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia with about 50% of the vote across the country. Subsequently stories broke about mass ballot stuffing. Some suggested figures by Muscovite journalist Mikhail Fishman, suggested that 20-25% of the votes in Moscow alone had been stolen or were ‘lost’. On the basis of pollsters he argued that before the elections United Russia were projected to have 23.5% of support nationwide, a figure he believes was simply doubled on polling day.

Ranked at 143 in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Index, it is only second to Ukraine as the one of the lowest ranking European countries. So, why the surprise? Political corruption is nothing new to Russia, with Putin moving to the office of Prime Minister in 2008 merely to overcome the three-term rule that prevented him from keeping the President’s office. The latest switcheroo with Dimitry Medvedev in light of this was very much a forecasted event. The puppet President, as many have come to see him, issued an investigation into the elections, while Putin simply said they would stand, indicating further where the power lies.

They see this recent rise in opposition being a middle class phenomenon…

The man with the power

These recent movements have been linked to the wave of global protest started in Egypt but Russian commentators have been quick to distance themselves from this. They see this recent rise in opposition being a middle class phenomenon, hinged on peaceful protest, which is directed at Putin. The role of social networking has once again been emphasised, which may have more grounds here than Egypt for instance, as Russia is recognised as being Europe’s largest Internet population. The hundreds of thousands that manifested across the country are said to be leaderless however. Various opponents have put themselves forward to stand against Putin in the March elections but a clear-cut opposition has yet to develop.

Putin won acclaim in Russia for boosting the economy whilst in power but subsequently claims of corruption on the basis of personal enrichment, worsening social conditions and his apparent dictatorial grip on the political system have led to a sharp drop in his popularity. US Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton labelled the elections dishonest. Ever the spin-doctor, this led Putin to claim the protests were a conspiracy, motivated and backed by western powers. It also prompted a crackdown on Russian NGOs working with foreign funding, the last in a long list of state violations on freedom of speech or in this case charity. Fears of a Kremlin backlash upon the media were confirmed through the firing of Kommersant Vlast editor-in-chief, Maxim Kovalsky by Alisher Usmanov, the billionaire owner of Kommersant publishing house and a major shareholder in Arsenal football club. The paper had printed anti-Putin slogans.

Despite Senator McCain’s attempted prophetic tweets to ‘Vlad’, it may be too soon to speak of the #ArabSpring in colder climes but such opposition to Putin promises change to a society steeped in fear. Russians are now waiting to see where the embryonic movement will take their country but something or someone has to give.

Images courtesy of Vladimir Putin


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