The Russian government and Vladimir Putin are confronted with the largest demonstrations in more than a decade. The authorities’ time-proven reaction against protests—repression and the mobilization of loyalists—has proved ineffective. The long-term impact of the protest movement remains unclear, but it has created a new political dynamic in Russia.

Over the past week, Russia has seen the largest anti-government protests since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. On Saturday, protests took place in 70 cities. The largest crowd gathered on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, which overflowed. The police put the number of protesters at 25,000, while independent Russian media like the newspaper Kommersant reported about 50,000. Organizers from the opposition group Solidarity said 80,000 were present.

It has been mainly the outrage over the Dec. 4 elections to the Russian parliament, the Duma, that fueled the protests. Widespread election fraud allegations and Putin’s stated goal of returning to the presidency in March have mobilized broad sectors of the population.

In the elections, the governing “party of power,” United Russia, lost almost 15 percent of its seats compared with 2007, and now stands at 49.41 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, it still holds a majority of parliamentary seats.

The United Russia losses represent a big blow to Prime Minister Putin, who needed a positive result in order to bolster his ambitions to return to the presidential chair. Polls taken before the elections had indicated a drop, but Putin’s team counted on winning an absolute majority of the votes to support the claim that, despite imperfections in the electoral system, the prime minister enjoys the support of the majority of Russians and remains the only politician capable of ensuring the well-being of the public and a stable political order in the country. As the vote showed, the government may have underestimated popular discontent over corruption, economic problems and the lack of social mobility for the majority of Russians. Revelations of voter fraud brought this discontent to the surface.

While the head of the election commission, Vladimir Churov, denied any vote rigging and admitted that, at most, there may have been some “unintentional mistakes,” other sources saw major problems. Russian and international observers testified to a large number of violations: The Russian NGO Golos, along with the online newspaper, uploaded an interactive map that documents 7,596 violations across the Russian Federation. The well-known blogger Alexei Navalny posted numerous videos that documented fraud.

This information emerged even though the websites of oppositional bloggers were down for days before and after the elections. The online editions of the independent news outlets Ekho Moskvy and Kommersant were also inaccessible for extended periods. Even though those responsible for the hacker attacks on these websites remain unknown, most bloggers blame circles close to the government. Critical journalists and bloggers reposted their information on Facebook, Vkontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) and other social websites.

Very rapidly, the protest spread to the streets. On the evening of Dec. 4, between 2,000 and 8,000 people, depending on the source, participated in a largely spontaneous protest. The police cracked down immediately, arresting 300, among them well-known figures like Navalny and Ilya Yashin, an opposition politician. Most of them were sentenced in summary proceedings to 15 days in prison.

In the days that followed, political tension grew in Moscow. Elite units of the Ministry of the Interior were moved into the capital. At the same time, youth organizations loyal to the Kremlin—among them Nashi and the Young Guard—protested in Moscow’s streets. Thousands of young adults arrived in buses from the provinces and, chanting and beating drums, drowned out demonstrations by opponents of the government. They declared that United Russia was the party that “the majority of Russians trusted” and that it had won a “clean victory.”

These groups, and with them Putin, tried to portray the protests as directed from the West. Putin even accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly, stating that opposition leaders had “heard the signal and with the support of the US state department began active work.”

Such a reaction to popular protests is not new in Russia—it is strongly reminiscent of events of 2005. After the so-called “Orange Revolution” had toppled the Ukrainian government in 2004 in reaction to election fraud, Russian politicians feared that their country might face a similar scenario. The protests that broke out in Russia in 2005, however, were quickly disbanded and oppositional parties were marginalized through changes in the election law and the creation of a loyalist opposition. The political legitimacy of the liberal opposition was undercut through charges that it was an agent of Western secret services.

In 2006, the Putin government made it nearly impossible for Russian nongovernmental organizations to accept funding from abroad, a move widely criticized by international human rights organizations. Furthermore, in order to mobilize more visible support for the government, Kremlin spin doctor Vladislav Surkov helped found a number of loyalist youth movement groups. Organizations like Nashi and the Young Guard of United Russia mobilized tens of thousands of young Russians to take control of Moscow’s streets and to provide future political cadres. Nashi promised its members upward social mobility and participation in a “new elite” that would replace corrupt existing leaders. In reality, however, the movement has consistently supported Vladimir Putin and his political course and barely ever criticizes the government. This time around, that strategy appears far less successful. Putin’s declaration that he will return to the presidency in 2012 with the option of being legally elected for two six-year terms has left many young Russians deeply disillusioned and given rise to fears that Russia is entering a new stage of political stagnation. Many protesters in Moscow were carrying Photoshopped pictures showing Putin as an old man presumably still in power in 2050.

At the same time, Russian government discourse has done much to empower educated young urban Russians. President Dmitry Medvedev has repeatedly criticized political corruption in Russia, promoted access to the Internet and underlined the importance of political and economic modernization for the country’s future. He was never able to fulfill the expectations he created with these statements. His admission that Putin’s return to power had been planned since Medvedev took over the presidency in 2008 convinced many that, indeed, Medvedev had been little more than Putin’s stooge. It further undermined the credibility of the government’s will to reform the political system.

Saturday’s protests, however, are seen in some quarters as showing that Russia’s political system can be changed. Putin declared himself willing to enter into dialogue with the opposition as long as it did not violate any laws.

The Moscow city government had issued a permit for the Bolotnaya Square demonstration, something that would have been impossible without political backing from the top. The national government did not ban the demonstration even though it tried various measures to discourage potential protesters. (Military authorities declared that anyone arrested at the protest could be directly sent to the army, and schoolchildren were summoned to take a last-minute exam on Saturday afternoon.) Fifty-two thousand policemen and Interior Ministry troops in riot gear made for an intimidating background, and the police made it clear that they would react decisively to any “provocations” or “excesses.”

Despite all the tension the protest remained peaceful, without a single arrest in Moscow. In other cities only a small number of arrests were made. The state television channels in Russia even reported at length about the protests after ignoring them for days.

The strength and longevity of this new political force on Russia’s streets remain to be seen. The only clear demand that unites the protesters is the call to repeat the elections. President Medvedev has announced that he ordered an investigation into some of the disputed results. It is unlikely, however, that this investigation will fundamentally change the outcome of the election.

Furthermore, the coalition of groups that demonstrated all over the country is very heterogeneous. Other than disgruntled, educated urbanites, it was made up largely of Russian nationalists, radical left anti-fascists, liberals and Communists. Aside from their opposition to Putin, little unites these groups.

Also, unlike in the Ukraine in 2004, in Russia there is no political alternative now. The parliamentary opposition—the Communists, the party Just Russia, and Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s Liberal Democrats—has shown itself to be exactly the kind of loyal opposition that does not represent a challenge to the ruling party. Even if it did, no other Russian politician comes close to Putin in terms of popularity and reach. It is likely that Putin would win elections that were entirely honest and fair.

One thing the protesters have already managed to do, however, is to change the terms of public debate. By insisting that they are not so much against the government as for transparent and legal elections, they successfully articulated popular discontent. Oppositional criticism of the government has thus, for the first time in Putin’s reign, made the transition from the Internet to the streets and to state-controlled media.

This may not yet amount to a “Russian winter,” as some have speculated in reference to the Arab Spring. It does, however, create the potential for a political system that is more accountable to Russia’s citizens in the future.

Ivo Mijnssen is a Russia scholar who specializes in youth movements in contemporary Russia, Soviet patriotism and the memory of World War II. In the spring, his book on the youth movement Nashi will be published by the ibidem-Verlag in Germany.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.