A year on from anti-Putin protests, many feel government has tightened the screws

Tue, Dec 4, 2012, 00:00

They risked a night in the cells, but thousands of ordinary Muscovites went to an illegal anti-government rally to protest against alleged cheating in parliamentary elections on a damp night in early December 2011.

They brandished placards calling Russian leader Vladimir Putin a thief and, in almost-spontaneous demonstrations, kindled the largest protest movement Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One year later, Vladimir Putin is still in office, with approval ratings of 50 per cent. The opposition protests have achieved none of their original demands: neither fresh parliamentary elections, nor an investigation into electoral fraud, much less putting Putin on his pension.

Yet those who went to that first protest think something important was achieved.

“It was a success because people came out on the street in winter, not for any particular party but just for the idea of honest elections,”says Pyotr Milovanov, who works in finance. Milovanov volunteered as an election monitor on polling day and headed to the first rally on December 5th because “I thought it was obvious that votes had been stolen”.

“Unfortunately the opposition has not been successful in translating people’s demands into a concrete plan to resolve real political problems,” he said.

The absence of a political programme is one of the opposition’s main problems, according to a recent report by the Moscow-based Levada Centre on the protest movement.

Low visibility

The opposition struggles to attract attention beyond its own websites and magazines. Barely 81,000 people voted in elections to elect deputies to the Co-ordination Council, a shadow government for the opposition – a tiny number in a country where 80 million people are eligible to vote.

“To say that the opposition is very weak is an understatement,” Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told The Irish Times.

“[Government opponents] are totally powerless to enter the political field to effectively play a role. Whatever decision, no matter how outrageous and arbitrary the government wants to take, it is free to take.”

There is no reason to think that Putin will not see out the end of his term until 2018 and then handpick a successor, she said, although he is more vulnerable than ever before. “Putin’s position, which used to be full dominance and totally uncontested by anybody or anything, today looks more precarious.”

While the opposition is too weak to force the government into real concessions, the government has not yet dared to squash it. Senior opposition figures, such as anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and leftist Sergey Udaltsov, are being investigated by Russian prosecutors and have had their homes searched, but remain free.

Many experts think the government has tightened the screws on civil society. Since Putin returned to the presidency in May, fines for taking part in illegal rallies have been drastically increased, penalties for treason have become more draconian and non-governmental organisations funded by foreign sources are required to identify themselves as “a foreign agent”, a phrase redolent of spying.

“The situation is more dangerous than it was one year ago,” said Lilya Shcheglova, director of the Foundation for Democratic Development, citing the law on NGOs and treason. “At the moment I don’t know how our civil society will survive.”

Trepidation and surprise

Dumitro Chatterjee, who works in marketing, expects the protests to continue. He had never been to a political rally in his life until last year and recalls “a very strange feeling” of trepidation and surprise, as he walked up to Bolotnaya Square, an island behind the Kremlin, the site of the first officially sanctioned major protest.

“There were a lot of people like me who were going there, very carefully. They were normal people, they were not professional protesters.”

He sees the embryo of a competitive political system. “We are getting to something like a positive alternative. It is still really weak at the moment and [opposition leaders] cannot be elected . . . but we can see the way that normal life can be, the way that democracy can be.”