By John Rees
December 11, 2011
The largest demonstration in 20 years has just hit the streets of Moscow. John Rees has just returned from observing the Russian parliamentary elections. Here he explains why those elections have resulted in a crisis.
Today’s demos numbered over 100,000 people in Moscow with more in St Petersburg, Vladivostok and other cities. These are the largest protests since the fall of Stalinism 20 years ago.
The protests are all the more significant because they take place in a political environment where the left has been marginalised under Putin’s nationalistic and authoritarian regime.
Only a few weeks ago Putin looked impregnable. Having surrendered the Russian Presidency to his placeman, Dimitri Medvedev, because it was illegal for him to stand for more than two successive terms, he was set to run for the Presidency again. After one term as prime minister he had just been declared United Russia’s candidate for the Presidential election next March.
But first Putin had to negotiate the elections to the Russian parliament. The regime’s strategy in these elections, held last Sunday, the 5th December, was to lower the level of the vote that United Russia received so as to appear less dictatorial in the eyes of both the domestic electorate and foreign governments. Such is the level of fraud in Russian elections that the regime had every expectation of being able to manage the result in this way.
But, as Alexis De Tocqueville noted of Louis XVI’s regime before the French Revolution, the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it decides to reform. The Putin regime tried to reform its image but the process ran out of its control. Sections of its own base were unwilling to take a hit for the sake of the regime’s greater good. Sections of the bureaucracy began to turn against the Kremlin. And the whole project opened the door for discontent from below to find expression.
One member of the local administration in a town near Moscow tells this story. Some days before the elections he received a task: to gather as many people as he could in order to organise a certain kind of fraud. It works as follows. The people who gathered to organise the fraud were from 18 large companies in the area. According to some election rules a person can vote without an absentee ballot in the polling station where they are not registered if the company they work for write them a letter of authorisation. So, these people voted as members of 18 different organisations 18 times each – for the Putin’s United Russia, of course. Each of these people got about 1000-1500 rubles, and the organiser about 10,000 rubles (£200). This method of falsification gained 600 additional votes for United Russia in one district alone.
A second example comes from a serving soldier in the Russian army. During the elections, before his detachment started voting, all the soldiers were gathered by the commander. The commander told them: ‘Here you can see the ballot papers. If you vote for United Russia, put a tick next to the party name. If you vote against United Russia, put a cross next to the party name’. When the commander was questioned over this he was answered that these are the instructions received from a superior body, and that all he had done was read them aloud, so he is not responsible. In the election 80 percent of the Russian army ‘voted’ for United Russia.
The election result saw United Russia’s vote slump from 64 percent to ‘just’ 50 percent. So the authority of the regime was diminished just as the accusations of vote rigging became more vocal. In some areas the regime was still getting Stalin era votes of over 100 percent.
The demonstrations on Saturday, 10th December were on wholly different scale however. The sheer scale makes them a watershed. And although the revolt in Russia has its own roots, it obviously part of the global revolt against dictatorship and rule by financial oligarchy.
The demonstration also involved the mobilisation of contradictory forces unlikely to meet on the same protest in the West. Boris Kagarlitsky reports that nationalist sections of the crowd chanted ‘the is no revolution’ when some on the left called the mobilisation the beginning of another ‘Russian Revolution’. Liberals were very careful to emphasise the peaceful nature of the protest and to limit demands to calling for a re-run of the election. According to one protester a leaflet read ‘we want evolution, not revolution’.
These confusions are hardly a surprise when a movement emerges from such a conservative political environment as that which has dominated Russia for two decades. We should remember that in the election the main establishment political force campaigning against corruption was the old Communist Party which emerged with the second highest vote. The Russian movement has been dormant for 20 years and it is now emerging, but with bleary eyes.
The left in Moscow did eventually hold a breakaway demonstration. Activist Vera Akulova’s summation of that part of the demonstration is probably a good final assessment of the day: ‘From Revolution Square, we quietly marched past the Lubyanka... with flags, banners, the ‘Internationale’ and chants. Police officers in the cordon read our ‘The power of millions, not millionaires’ slogan... and about half began to smile. We exchanged smiles with them and winked. Good, but not enough – we need to repeat!’