December 2011, Week 1


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Wed, 7 Dec 2011 23:31:55 -0500
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Chanting 'Russia without Putin,' flash mobs roil Moscow

Protesters across Russia march against Vladimir Putin's
ruling party following allegations of official
vote-rigging in last weekend's Duma elections.

By Fred Weir, Correspondent
December 7, 2011


Moscow was uncommonly tense Wednesday, with tens of
thousands of riot police patrolling the streets and
helicopters buzzing overhead, while opposition leaders
promised more flash-mob-type demonstrations to protest
alleged official vote-rigging in last weekend's bitterly
contested Duma elections.

For more than a decade, Russians appear to have quietly
accepted Vladimir Putin's system of "managed democracy."
The system utilizes a toolbox full of official measures to
ensure that only Kremlin-approved parties and candidates
get elected, and that the decisive share of votes is
always won by the ruling party, United Russia (UR), which
has been headed by Mr. Putin for much of its existence.

But on Monday, after official returns showed UR winning
almost 50 percent of the votes - down sharply from the 64
percent it won in 2007 polls - up to 10,000 protesters,
informed mainly through social media, converged on the
downtown Chistye Prudhi metro station. They attempted to
march to the Kremlin, shouting slogans like "down with the
police state" and "Russia without Putin." About 300 were
detained, and a few such as radical blogger Alexei Navalny
and liberal opposition leader Ilya Yashin were
subsequently handed 15-day prison sentences for "refusing
to follow a lawful police order."

The next evening, hundreds more jostled with thousands of
heavily-armored riot police on Moscow's downtown Triumph
Square, and another 250 were detained, including former
Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a co-leader of the
banned liberal PARNAS party, and Sergei Mitrokhin, leader
of the liberal Yabloko party, which officially won about 3
percent of the votes in Sunday's election. Protest rallies
were also reported in other Russian cities Tuesday,
including St. Petersburg, the Volga center of Samara, and
the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

"No one expected the public mood to snap like this; these
rallies caught everyone by surprise," says Alexander
Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for
Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

"What is most remarkable is that the people we are seeing
in the streets now are not the usual handful of hard-core
protesters," who turn out for regular anti-Kremlin rallies
on Triumph Square, he adds.

"These are completely new people, responsible, mature
people, who are finally fed up with the open official lies
and manipulations that everyone is expected to swallow,
and see public protest as the only respectable option.
Even a few weeks ago, for these people, taking to the
streets would have been unthinkable. But now they feel
pushed against the wall," he adds.

Opposition leaders say there will be more protests,
including daily flash mobs and a big rally planned for
Saturday in Revolution Square, which is adjacent to the
Kremlin. That rally, planned weeks ago, has been granted
an official permit - but only for a maximum of 300
participants, though organizers had asked to be allowed
permission for 10,000 people - which the huge space could
easily accommodate.

Most state media have not reported the anti-government
protests, but have instead lavished coverage on the "Clean
Victory" demonstrations that have been held each evening
in downtown Moscow by members of the pro-Kremlin "Molodaya
Gvardia" and "Nashi" youth groups. These organizations
were created in the wake of Ukraine's Orange Revolution
several years ago to play precisely such a
counterbalancing role if similar disturbances were to
occur in Russia.

"There is no revolution going on, just a few
provocations," says Anton Smirnov, federal commissar of
the Nashi movement. "We have had ten times more people at
our meetings than the numbers of marginal people and paid
fanatics," who come out to protest alleged election
violations, he adds.

Not surprisingly, Russian social media such as Facebook,
LiveJournal, and the Russian-language VKontakte have lit
up with commentary, including first-hand witness accounts
of official pressure and vote-rigging during the election,
information about protest venues, and harrowing tales by
arrested protesters of brutality at the hands of police.

One entry on the relatively new Openspace.ru, offers a
wealth of helpful advice for first-time protesters, from
what to bring with you, to how to behave at the rally, and
how to get legal help when you need it: "If you are
detained, do not resist, relax and press your chin to
breast, cover your head with hands," it advises. "If you
are beaten, don't hesitate to shout, the louder the
better.... Having found yourself inside the paddy wagon,
immediately send a phone message. If you call, do it in
secret, because they can seize your phone...."

Analysts say that the immediate response of the
authorities, which has been to crack down hard, may be a
symptom of weakness that is only likely to inflame the
public mood.

"They say these protests are only happening in a few big
cities, but that's where trends usually start," says
Mikhail Vinogradov, chairman of Peterburskaya Politika, an
independent St. Petersburg think-tank. "The reaction from
authorities has been incoherent, and Plan A appears to be
to nip these rallies in the bud through overwhelming
police force. After that, they may try to make a few
concessions. We'll see."

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, co-leader of the
liberal PARNAS, which was banned from taking part in
elections, says that Putin has virtually disappeared from
public view as the protests have spread.

"Putin is not taking this as a lesson. He needs to move to
engage with the opposition, seek dialogue and compromise,
but he is not doing it," says Mr. Kasyanov, who was
Putin's prime minister during his first term as president.

"What has happened this week is the beginning of the end
for the Putin regime. Yes, he will probably be elected (in
polls slated for March) but there will be more fraud, more
protests, and public cynicism will grow. We can
confidently predict that the lifespan of this regime will
be no more than one to five years," he says.


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