Despite plummeting temperatures and the Prime Minister’s pledge to create a profusion of jobs, thousands of discontented Muscovites continue to gather in the streets surrounding the Kremlin to air their frustrations and, above all else, assert and explore their right to protest. Wielding “Goodbye, Putin!” signs and wrapped in ushankas and scarves, the crowds periodically gather around makeshift platforms to listen to speakers demanding electoral reform, often lambasting Prime Minister Vladmir Putin and his pliant complotter, Dmitry Medvedev. These gatherings reached their zenith at the end of December and have now caused some Russian officials to call for electoral reform and increased transparency, though it seems that these half-baked concessions have spurred rather than mollified the protestors.
Globally, this seems to be the time of revolutions and upheavals, an international springtime for democracy, with frenetic political activism emerging in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and potentially even Iran and Jordan. However, the turmoil in Russia defies the formula emerging elsewhere, in which longstanding regimes are confronted by their people and forced to either disperse the rabble-rousers or else dethrone. In Russia, Putin has chosen to deal with the widespread dissent of his people with a truly novel sentiment: ambivalence.
Harkening back to the leadership tactics of czar Nicholas II, Putin has simply chosen to ignore the torrential political unrest brooding at his doorstep and focus on the logistics of his presidential campaign. Earlier this month, Putin launched his expansive campaign website, putin2012.ru, which promises a handful of judicial reforms and professes a dedication to fostering business and creating jobs. However, it is likely that Putin is aware (or should be) that he won’t be able to placate the people by addressing a host of subsidiary political issues on his website.
In fact, launching a website to campaign for an election that he has already tacitly won is morethe source of the peoples discontent rather than a possible remedy for it. Unlike the American Occupy movements or the riots in Britain, the anxiety germinating on the frosted steps of the Kremlin is not the result of certain policies or laws, but instead, the inherently opaque and dismissive leadership that comprises the Russian government. The cries heard from Sakharov Avenue are not calling for a new direction from their leaders – they are calling for a fundamental overhaul of the venal electoral system in Russia and, perhaps even more notably, the dignity to be recognized and addressed by the government.
Dignity is key here. Above all else, the Russian people are dismayed by the ways in which the government condescends and dismisses them. Indeed, in a fashion eerily redolent of totalitarianism, the Russian government seems to maintain the conviction that it can cope with protesters by pretending they don’t exist. On December 24, the protestors claimed to have gathered 120,000 citizens in the streets of Moscow – the government reports only 29,000. In a series of glib remarks, Putin likened the white protest ribbons to condoms and the crowds to a pack of rowdy monkeys in “The Jungle Book.” In the latest election, the United Russia party (Putin’s party) claimed to receive 50 percent of the vote – analysts reckon the true figure is closer to 35 percent.
For the time being, Russia’s future looks uncertain and will depend upon the doggedness of the protestors versus the resolve of the figureheads and how each will react when push comes to shove. On the one hand, Mr. Putin cannot rid himself of dissidents by simply closing his eyes, and the Russian government will have to answer for its opacity eventually, or else call in the military to disperse the crowds. The protestors, on the other hand, must be aware of the irony hiding in their current slogan: “not a single vote for Putin.” Who is to say that not receiving a single vote will prevent Mr. Putin from winning the election? The dissatisfied Russian people should understand that if they are going to demand reform, they cannot do it half-heartedly, or they risk revealing that they are as enervated and bovine as the government assumes them to be. They must be ready, if the situation calls for it, to prevent Mr. Putin from stealing the election once again and ignoring their outcries, and such an endeavor might necessitate the use of force.