Demonstrators took to the streets in cities throughout Russia on 10 December as the latest stage in the campaign against ballot-rigging in the parliamentary elections.
Such protests went ahead despite police violence, the mass arrests of protestors, the summary imposition of two-week jail sentences on those arrested on previous demonstrations and the flooding of the capital Moscow with 50,000 police and 2,000 interior troops in preparation for the anti-government rally.
Estimates of the numbers demonstrating in Moscow varied from 35,000 to 85,000. In St Petersburg around 10,000 protested.
The protests in 99 cities represented not just the biggest public protests in Russia for some two decades but also the first sizeable protests against the twelve-year-old Putin regime.
Putin was appointed acting President by Boris Yeltsin in late 1999.
He subsequently served two four-year terms of office. In 2008 Putin stood down as President — the constitution barred him from serving more than two consecutive terms of office —– and was immediately appointed Prime Minister.
In September of this year Putin announced his intention to run for President in March 2012. Due to constitutional changes, he could end up in office until 2024.
Both as President and as Prime Minster Putin has presided over a regime which has been defined by authoritarianism, corruption, growing social inequality, an increasingly chauvinistic nationalism, and a more aggressive foreign policy towards states bordering Russia.
The main television channels and some of the major newspapers have slavishly supported Putin’s policies and effectively blacked out oppositional voices. Even last week’s Russia-wide protests received hardly any coverage on television or in the pro-Putin press.
Oligarchs who had grown super-rich under Yeltsin but who fell out with Putin were forced into exile or prosecuted and imprisoned. Those who remained on good terms with him, however, continued to amass their fortunes: Putin cut the tax on company profits from 35% to 24%, and also introduced a flat rate income tax of 13%.
Years of economic growth, especially after the virtual collapse of the Russian economy under Yeltsin, combined with Putin’s apparent determination to put an end to the social chaos of the Yeltsin years, initially secured Putin and his party (United Russia) broad support amongst the Russian electorate.
Putin was re-elected President in 2004 with 70% of the vote. And in the last parliamentary elections, held in 2007, United Russia won 64% of the vote, giving it 315 of the 450 seats in the Duma (Russian parliament).
But by 2011 disillusionment had begun to set in. Bloggers exposed a series of government-sanctioned financial scandals.
Despite Putin’s promises to crack down on corruption, Russia had become the world’s most corrupt major economy, with a worse level of corruption than Pakistan.
Annual economic growth of 7% a year and real wages growth of 15% a year faded away under the impact of the global economic crisis. Increases in wages stalled. Rates of economic growth fell by half. To balance the budget Putin and United Russia were left with the choice of cutting social spending or increasing the retirement age.
This disillusionment expressed itself in declining electoral support for United Russia.
Even according to official figures, United Russia won only 49% of the votes — down from 64% in 2007 — in this month’s parliamentary elections. But Russian and international observers put the party’s share of the vote far lower.
The Russian vote-monitoring organisation “Golos” (“Vote”) received 1,500 complaints of electoral abuse, including the fact that participation in the election in the Rostov region amounted to 146% of the electorate,
Based on data collected by 300 volunteers from 800 polling stations, Golos estimated United Russia’s real share of the vote amounted to just 30%. In Moscow alone a million fictitious votes had been added to United Russia’s share of the poll.
Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation In Europe (OSCE) visited 150 polling stations and judged counting at 34 of them as “very bad”. The OSCE also condemned media bias, state interference in the electoral process, and procedural violations including ballot-box stuffing.
In the week following the election the opposition movement, triggered by evidence of electoral fraud, coalesced around a number of basic demands.
These included demands that the results should be annulled, fresh elections held, an investigation conducted into the ballot-rigging, and all arrested protestors released.
But in terms of its overall politics, the opposition movement is politically amorphous and generally concerned to stress its moderate nature. It also contains some particularly unpleasant elements.
Alexei Navalny, for example, who has been praised in the Western media for his anti-corruption campaigning and anti-government blogging, is a hardline nationalist who scapegoats immigrants for what he calls “ethnic crimes”, attends the annual “Russian March” rallies organised by neo-Nazis and is a self-confessed admirer of French fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
24 December is to be the next day for nationally co-ordinated protests.