Pro-democracy Protests Put Putin, Russia at Turning Point
Is the Arab Spring moving North to become the Russian Winter? With democracy demonstrations to take place across Russia on Saturday, the world’s largest nation may be at a crossroads.
From his prison cell near the Arctic Circle, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed Russian tycoon, captured the core of Russia’s political impasse when he predicted a few weeks ago that the key question would not be who will win Russia’s elections, but how much will the fraud undermine the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin’s government?
On Saturday, barely one week after Russia’s parliamentary elections, we may see the answer.
Readying for major protest
A Moscow protest demonstration permitted for 300 people has drawn attendance pledges from 50,000 people. Moscow is bracing for the largest democracy demonstration of the Putin decade.
Beyond the capital, protests are to take place in 88 Russian and 43 foreign cities. From Kaliningrad on the Baltic to Vladivostok on the Pacific, Russians seem to be shaking off an apathy that Putin’s opponents say has allowed him to rule Russia largely unchallenged since 2000.
Where is all this headed?
Boris Makarenko, chairman of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank in Moscow, does not believe the Russian street will dethrone the Czar.
“I don’t think it is going towards an Orange Revolution like in Ukraine, Georgia or Yugoslavia,” said Makarenko.
Putin eroding popularity
But Russia has changed. The mystique of Putin’s invincibility has shown some cracks.
The first shock came when a crowd at a martial arts fight booed Putin, a judo expert. The Kremlin later said the crowd was really booing a losing contestant, an American. Then the Kremlin said the beer drinkers in the crowd were booing because presidential security did not let them use the bathrooms.
Kremlin watchers have noted, though, that Putin has not appeared in public since, skipping two anti-drug rallies where he had been billed as a speaker.
In last Sunday’s elections, the vote for the ruling United Russia Party officially dropped to half of the ballots cast. But opposition politicians and many election observers say that, without fraud, only one quarter of the voters in Moscow and St. Petersburg cast ballots for the ruling party. Historically, it is hard to rule Russia without these two cities.