Two-thirds of Russians don’t use the internet. Even more don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account, and only a miniscule percentage own an iPhone. For most Russians, the December 4 parliamentary election was a non-event. Reports of vote-rigging were nothing new – and certainly not cause to go out and protest. Cynicism is what Russians expect from their leaders; apathy is all that politicians want in return.
It was a tiny minority of Russians that upset that balance. The tens of thousands of middle-class Muscovites who took to the streets last weekend finally realized they had every freedom in the world except political freedom. They uploaded videos of ballot stuffing taken on smart phones, fueled their outrage by reading opposition blogs and signed up online for the demonstration on Bolotnaya Square.
Two-thirds of Russians don’t use the internet. Even more don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account, and only a miniscule percentage own an iPhone.
The magic of the internet is that it connects like-minded people that otherwise never would have met each other. But the social networks that emerge often give members the illusion of belonging to a huge community, which in fact is hardly representative of the population at large. Seeing that thousands upon thousands of other Facebook users were signing up for the December 10 rally empowered Muscovites to overcome their fear of a violent police crackdown.
Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, poked fun at Moscow’s liberal middle class in an interview with the feisty new TV channel Dozhd (Rain) in October. Not everybody in Russia can afford to spend two to three hours a day writing blogs, or to pay for 1,200-ruble ($40) dishes in fancy Italian restaurants, all the while lamenting the state of the nation, Peskov said. Moscow’s middle class is out of synch with the concerns of the rest of the country. “We aren’t threatened by any Arab revolutions,” he said. “We don’t have the readiness to protest. There is no downward trend and no degeneration. There’s continuous development.”
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The other day I bumped into Lyudmila, the 50-something woman who used to clean my apartment. When I told her that I had returned to Moscow after hearing about the planned December 10 protest, she had no idea what I was talking about. (I didn’t bother trying to explain that I had found out about the rally on Facebook and was now writing a blog.)
Lyudmila has entirely different concerns. She is raising her grandson alone in an industrial town southeast of Moscow and has just quit her job in a factory because the irregular night shifts caused her blood pressure to go up.
“Did you vote in the elections?” I asked Lyudmila.
She stared up at me through her trendy plastic eyeglass frames.
“Oh, Lucian, I never vote,” Lyudmila sighed. “What’s the point? Everything’s already been decided for me.”
Lyudmila draws a monthly pension that amounts to less than 6,000 rubles ($200) a month. During his national call-in show on Thursday, Putin repeated twice that the average pension had been raised to more than 8,000 rubles. Lyudmila is unhappy with her lot in life, but she feels it’s useless to make any demands of the government. It’s easier to ignore it.
Anastasiya, 28, and Andrei, 31, think the same way. She’s an accountant; he served in the military after going to law school. I caught up with them in a western-style café in the working class neighborhood in northern Moscow where Anastasiya had grown up. We dated briefly several years ago but never lost touch. Now she and Andrei are planning to start a family.
The couple has internet at home, but neither had heard about the December 10 protest beforehand. They view social networks skeptically, and, like many Russians, are convinced that the FSB gathers information on citizens from Facebook analog VKontakte. Anastasiya and Andrei only found out about the rally when they tried to go for a walk in downtown Moscow that day and discovered the police had blocked off large sections of the city center. Of course they didn’t join it, what for? Politics is a show, and the opposition is just as conniving as the government. Andrei said he’d not once voted in his life.
The Soviet Union had no politics. It only had ideology. When the communist system disintegrated, it left behind a vacuum.
Does it really matter what Lyudmila, Anastasiya and Andrei think? After all, you only need a few thousand people to make a revolution. Historically, most Russians have been totally shut out of the political process, with elites deciding questions of succession among themselves. While the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution could tap into a vast reservoir of discontent toward the czarist regime, the Communists never intended to introduce representative democracy. The Soviet Union, despite its radical agenda of world revolution, had no politics. It only had ideology. When the communist system disintegrated 20 years ago, it left behind a vacuum.
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Today apathy can work to the detriment of both the burgeoning protest movement and Putin’s government. For organizers of the next protest scheduled for December 24, it’s crucial to get out even a bigger crowd than last weekend to show that their ranks are swelling. For Putin, apathy could force his minions to conclude that massive vote-rigging is the only way to ensure a convincing victory in the presidential election, thereby risking a second wave of anti-government protests.
In his “conversation” with the nation on Thursday, Putin appealed to citizens like Lyudmila to come out and vote on the first Sunday in March. “Please don’t think or act according to the logic of ‘yes, we’d vote for him, but those guys up there will do their thing anyway, and we really need to go to the dacha to plant potatoes,’” he said. “Nobody besides you will do anything.”
“Don’t think ‘yes, we’d vote for him, but those guys up there will do their thing anyway, and we really need to go to the dacha to plant potatoes.’ Nobody besides you will do anything.”
It’s doubtful that voters like Lyudmila heard him. Not everybody, no matter how much they may adore Putin, has the time to spend four-and-a-half hours watching his show in the middle of a workday.
To prevent the possibility of any vote-rigging during the presidential election, Putin instructed the Central Election Commission to install web cameras in the country’s 90,000-odd polling stations. The idea isn’t even half a concession to the opposition, since nothing can replace independent election monitors. Anything can happen in a back room. Moreover, a common complaint of election observers after the Duma elections was not that there were any on-the-spot violations, but that final numbers published by the Central Election Commission didn’t match vote counts at individual polling stations.
Putin, 59, will face half a dozen or so opponents, most of them political dinosaurs who have been around longer than him: nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 65; Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, 67; and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, 59. The only fresh face will probably be bachelor billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, 46, owner of the New Jersey Nets. Prokhorov’s candidacy is intended to distract Russia’s restless business community and maybe the West.
Impossibly strict registration rules prevent the appearance of a dark-horse candidate who could pose a real threat. After his call-in show, Putin revealingly told reporters that he saw himself as his own main competitor in the election campaign. Forty-two percent of Russians would vote for him as president, according to a VtSIOM poll taken earlier this month. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky would come in second and third place, with 11 percent and 9 percent respectively. (Prokhorov and Yavlinsky are statistically insignificant at 1 percent each.)
One must assume that the election will return Putin to the presidency. But Putin needs as many votes as possible on March 4 to avoid a run-off election that would turn into a simple referendum on his rule and possibly draw a large number of protest voters. The “non-system” opposition’s only hope is to get dissatisfied citizens to vote for anybody but Putin and force a second round by diluting his majority to below 50 percent. Fresh proof of vote-rigging could give new life to Russia’s protest movement. The December 10 rally and the upcoming demonstration next weekend are essentially dress rehearsals for the spring.
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Elections are critical for semi- or pseudo-democratic countries because even if the outcome is entirely predictable, they force the ruling class to justify its legitimacy. Elections are chinks in any regime’s armor, and accusations of vote-rigging were the catalyst that made Serbs overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 and Ukrainians take to the streets in 2004. Those peaceful revolutions succeeded only after a significant number of the ruling elite, including the security services, defected to the opposition. Nothing like that has happened in Russia yet.
Organizers of the protest movement are keenly aware of the historic chance the back-to-back elections give them. President Dmitry Medvedev eliminated this vulnerability by extending terms and staggering elections. After March, the opposition will have to wait five years for the country’s next Duma election and six years for the next presidential vote.