I sensed something was different when a good friend of mine, Katya Vladyshevskaya, the mother of a beautiful 4-year-old, called me a month ago and asked if becoming an election monitor made any sense. Well, yes, I said, why not, it should be a good thing.
But as we talked, I was struck by the very idea of a young person — not a journalist, not a civic activist, not one of the usual suspects, in other words — becoming actively interested in the electoral process.
It was not just talk. Katya actually became a monitor. She spent 15 hours on Sunday at a Moscow polling station, where she witnessed barefaced fraud by the station’s head and tried to lodge a formal complaint. She showed the officials the Russian electoral law and asking them to compare the number of people who voted with the number of ballots in the boxes. They responded by calling the police.
We waited outside the police station while she gave her account of the episode. They released her for lack of evidence — of her “misconduct.” That night she filed a complaint against the authorities. Katya told us she never thought she could be that angry.
Russians have been angry before. But I struggle to recall a time when my countrymen, especially the young, were so angry over a stolen vote. And the protest was not quietly smoldering, as it usually does; it broke out into the streets.
On Monday, the day after the elections, up to 10,000 people rallied on Chistye Prudy, a Moscow boulevard. More than 300 were detained by the police. On Tuesday night, a smaller crowd went out onto Triumphalnaya Square, and this time the police cracked down big-time: More than 560 were detained with demonstrative brutality and total disregard for the law. In St. Petersburg, after a similar demonstration, 300 people were detained.
The activist blogger Aleksei Navalny, 35, the young politician Ilya Yashin, 28, and many other leaders of the spontaneous protest activity were hastily sentenced to 15 days in jail for disobeying police officers. Navalny and Yashin denied any resistance to the authorities.
The early morning of Monday, when the voting results were announced, with their inflated figures for United Russia, the ruling party, has become a watershed. Even seasoned political activists did not expect the situation to explode — stuffed ballot boxes and dead souls voting are not new in Russia.
But on Monday we discovered that there is a limit to electoral fraud. In a broader sense, we discovered that there is a limit to political manipulation.
For years, the Kremlin’s political engineers have been suppressing bottom-up movements and creating top-down manageable structures. They have cemented full control over countrywide television channels, and their heavy censorship has created a wall between the silent, TV-watching majority and a vocal, Internet-savvy minority. Big-name news anchors have not even mentioned the protests or the crackdown.
The Kremlin controls the political system, the courts and the entire law-enforcement system, as well as regional finances and major industries. Obedient political parties and youth organizations are routinely used to put on shows of “grass-roots support.”
An immediate solution to the current crisis would be a new election in the regions that were especially affected by fraud. But Vladimir Putin sees any political concession as a sign of weakness.
Yet for all the Kremlin’s power, the ground is slipping out from under the system. The protests, still relatively modest in scale, may still wither under pressure. But the anger raised by Sunday’s vote will not go away. The Kremlin’s manipulative methods will not work as before. The arrests have even helped the opposition resolve its leadership problem. Navalny, who made a name as a fearless anti-corruption watchdog, has acquired a broader appeal. His blog has become a media outlet in its own right.
Even more importantly, people like Katya, the election monitor, have become engaged. Their age, the fact that they have no firsthand experience of life under a totalitarian regime, the explosive growth of social networks and other new media, have all come together to help them confront forces to which their elders had grown accustomed. The ubiquitous graft, the officials who openly confuse the state budget with their pockets, the cynical disregard for the public have definitely helped as well.
That said, one has to remember that the young people who have voiced their discontent are still a tiny minority in a vast country. There are other powerful social currents in Russian society. Olga Borovkova, the judge who sentenced Navalny and Yashin, is 26 years old. The many participants in the Kremlin-organized movements are still younger. The Putin decade has produced a whole layer of young people eager to turn the resources of the state to their advantage.
Putin has fine-tuned his political system to create rich benefits for the elites, who in turn use the proceeds to consolidate the political system and build a posh lifestyle outside Russia. These are attractive models.
Opinion polls (conducted before the elections) have consistently shown a widespread rentier mentality and a preference among young people for jobs at Gazprom and Rosneft, the state-owned natural-resources monopolies. These young people, officials and aspiring bosses, may well see the protesters as rivals or enemies meddling with their lucrative future.
It’s not just the rentier state-supporting party and disorganized, quixotic protesters who have collided in Moscow. Two world views and two images of the country’s future are at odds. There are no easy ways out of the deadlock the Russian society has found itself in.
Thanks to all those years of pretend politics and Potemkin party-building, Russia does not have a ready alternative to Putin’s party. But Putin and his party are no longer as powerful as they were before Dec. 4. Although a majority on paper, they can no longer act in the name of the people.
The next big test is expected at a mass protest rally on Saturday. The social networks have been actively spreading the word — and also instructing people on how to behave so as not to provoke the authorities, and how to behave if arrested. The possibility of mass arrests is high: The authorities have given a permit for 300 demonstrators, and many thousands are expected.
By Maxim Trudolyubov, the editorial page editor of the Russian daily Vedomosti.