What the Russian Protests Can -- And Can't -- Do

Why Putin's Grasp on Power Remains Firm

Last Saturday, tens of thousands of Muscovites gathered in the third mass protest in less than two months, chanting "Putin, ukhodi!"(Putin, go!) and "Rossiya bez Putina" (Russia without Putin). This demonstration of public resentment, unprecedented in post-Soviet Russia, is a sign of a broader political crisis.

This crisis was triggered by two events. First, in September, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that Putin, and not Medvedev, would run for president in the upcoming March elections. (He proceeded to promise that, if elected, he'd make Medvedev his prime minister.)  The Russian public saw the two leaders' trading of places as evidence that they held their citizens in full contempt, especially when Medvedev, lamely, added that their decision to switch offices had been made long ago.

Then came the rigging of the December 4 parliamentary election. In Putin's Russia, a governor who fails to deliver good election results for United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party, risks being removed from his post; indeed, a few have lost their governorships in past years after United Russia fared poorly in elections in their regions. Seeking to outdo each other in a demonstration of loyalty, governors pressured their subordinates, from election officials to local administrators and even major industrial employers TO deliver a high showing for United Russia. In particular, Moscow's new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, appointed in October 2010, was also anxious to demonstrate his loyalty and efficiency -- but given Moscow's educated and critically-minded constituency, the mayor's effort required egregious falsifications. Election observers reported episodes of ballot stuffing and of local precinct officials rewriting the voting records in favor of United Russia. According to various estimates by independent civic groups, the actual support of the United Russia in Moscow was around 30 to 35 percent; an exit poll conducted by FOM, a polling agency with close ties to the Kremlin, reported 32 percent. But in the final tally, Moscow election officials reported that 46 percent of the vote went to United Russia.

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