December 12, 2011

Russia Transformed

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets last Saturday, protesting the previous Saturday’s fraudulent parliamentary elections. Speaking on the Caucasus International TV Channel (broadcast from Georgia), Russian economist and dissident Andrei Illarionov [1] said, “A lot of things have drastically changed since the Dec. 4 elections. The scale of [election] falsification is unprecedented, even for Russian history.” Instead of a free and fair election on Dec. 4, Illarionov said it was a “special operation” intended to strengthen Russia’s ruling party. This special operation, however, has backfired. The whole country knows that the elections were a sham.

There have been irregularities in previous Russian elections. But this time is different. As Illarionov explained, “there were a lot of independent observers at the election stations, who actually managed to block falsification and secured a more or less fair count of the vote.” Where falsification was forestalled, Putin’s party won a rough quarter of the popular vote. Where falsification went forward, Putin’s party was given more than half. “Also,” Illarionov noted, “there are specialists in Russia who can apply mathematical modeling who can figure out how people actually voted. At minimum, we are talking about 17 million stolen votes.”

Public statements by the Russian president and prime minister, claiming a fair vote, have only served to discredit the government. “Now people have proof that these leaders are liars,” said Illarionov. “They lie to people, and there is going to be no trust for these two. This is a new situation.” What we are seeing in Russia is a mass reaction, involving hundreds of thousands of Russians. In Moscow somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people came out into the streets and joined the protest. Security police were standing by, and some arrests were made. But overall, the Kremlin didn’t want a showdown.

A reader in Moscow, known to me through a friend, reported that Saturdays’ protest “went well beyond expectations….” The authorities had originally agreed to allow 300 people to gather on Ploschad Revolutsii (which literally means “Riot Square”). But those who followed Facebook in Russian [2] knew that the number might be a hundred times larger.  “It became clear that [the authorities] should expect dozens of thousands,” he wrote, “so they changed the meeting place to Bolotnaya Ploschad [literally meaning “Swamp Square”] and now permission [was extended] to 30,000 people [when] in fact, there came at least 60,000, some say 80,000 or even 100,000.” Our Moscow correspondent’s first impression was, “Lots … of really nice people everywhere – peaceful, intelligent, all cheered up and having fun, yet, remembering the goal, which is: Honest elections in honest government.”

During the protest events, a number of opposition figures addressed the crowds: Leonid Parfynov, the Russian news anchor; Grigori Yavlinsky, Russian politician and free market advocate; and Dmitri Bykov, a poet. As if to acknowledge the decisive role played by Internet social media, Russian President Medvedev responded to several thousand negative comments on his Facebook page by promising an investigation into election fraud.

Russian protestors interviewed by Western media said that Medvedev had no choice. Something would have to be done. All shades of opinion were in agreement throughout Russia. As my correspondent in Moscow explained, “[This] is something new for us: left wing, right wing, liberals, nationalists, communists – all stopped arguing and fighting to stand side by side. This actually happened, and, ironically, we should thank our hated government for that.”

The Kremlin’s old “divide-and-conquer” strategy has no traction for the moment. “I was standing there with my mom,” he wrote, “we haven’t seen any violence…. We haven’t seen anyone looking drunk or drugged.

There were a lot of troops on the perimeter of course, a real lot. They were ready to suppress a riot, but it was no riot….”

“Tens of millions of Russians were offended, and believe the leadership lied to them. This has shaken Russian society to its foundations,” noted Andrei Illarionov during his interview with Caucasus International TV. “This is a massive reaction of millions of people…. We are approaching a turning point at which it becomes publicly indecent to support the regime. It will not be tolerable in society to support them. And people who make public statements in support of the regime will be outcasts.”

The criminality and indecency of the Russian government is comprehended and acknowledged by the Russian people. The moral force behind this awakening cannot be measured, though it is widely felt. An inward transformation of the country has occurred. The old Soviet structures represented by the FSB/KGB have been rebuked. The method of the lie is no longer acceptable. Here is the promise of positive change. Here is a moral current at work within a society, threatening otherwise powerful and secure rulers.

Predictably, the Russian government will retreat and temporize for the moment. Those who understand crowd psychology know that mass protests typically run out of steam. Public outrage cannot last forever. Yet something has changed in Russia. The totalitarian structures that remained after 1991 have suffered a blow.

Perhaps even a fatal blow. The year 2011 has been remarkable in terms of revolutionary changes affecting a number of countries within the old totalitarian bloc, especially Libya and Syria. The most important country within the bloc has always been Russia. And now Russia’s people have begun to mass in the streets. Perhaps there is room for optimism.

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