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Russia protests and other 2011 uprisings: A year of yearning for clean government

On Dec. 24, tens of thousands of Russians plan to protest again over election fraud and other official corruption. The event will bookend a remarkable year of efforts, from China to India to Brazil, to rein in graft in high places.

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    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, and upper parliament chamber speaker Valentina Matviyevko attend President Dmitry Medvedev's last state-of-the nation address in Moscow's Kremlin on Thursday. Mr. Medvedev proposed a set of reforms to liberalize Russia's political system, a likely response to big protests against fraud in the Dec. 4 election.
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At the risk of writing history too early, 2011 may well be remembered as a year in which demands for honesty in public life popped up around the world like desert flowers after a rain.

Tunisia was the first bud, with protests that spawned the Arab Spring and its cry for clean, representative government. Movements to curb official corruption also shot up in Brazil, Russia, India, and China – the BRIC countries.

This Saturday, in what may be the year’s final big challenge to graft in high places, tens of thousands of Russians plan to hit the streets again, braving the arctic cold and a chilly response from the Kremlin.

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Most of these protesters are middle-class urbanites with Internet access – all still rare for the masses. But even this dissenting pro-democracy elite has managed to force pledges of political reform as a result of their protests in many cities on Dec. 10.

That earlier gathering was triggered by clear evidence of fraud in Dec. 4 elections for Russia’s parliament. But it was also fueled by opposition blogger Aleksei Navalny giving an apt phrase to the ruling United Russia party that backs Vladimir Putin: a “party of swindlers and thieves.”

For now, the Kremlin only talks of reform. The outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, proposed several ideas Thursday to the new (and illegitimate) parliament: forced disclosure of public officials’ personal income, direct election of provincial governors, and creation of an independent television station.

He noted how many government contracts are granted to private businesses with family ties to public workers. “The number of such cases in our country is enormous,” he said. Recent research shows that the average bribe in Russia has gone up more than sixfold, reaching $10,000.

Without the cleansing effect of transparent democracy, Russia’s endemic corruption may stall its economic growth.

Even if Mr. Medvedev’s reforms are enacted, they fall short of the protesters’ call for a new election.

This Saturday’s protests will likely be just a warm-up for those timed for next March’s presidential election. Prime Minister (and former president) Putin has all but eliminated any serious opposition to his winning that contest.

Mr. Putin, like other BRIC leaders, may be weighing whether to crack down on dissent or make concessions that might fuel dissent even more. He has seen leaders from Serbia to Ukraine to Egypt overthrown by protests in recent years. He witnessed the collapse of East Germany as a KGB agent.

In China, the Communist Party leadership also appears worried about how to respond to the hundreds of protests, many of them driven by rising resentment toward local corrupt officials. In the city of Wukan this month, the entire population rose against land grabs by officials and the killing of a protest leader, Xue Jinbo. Party officials fled the city and a new government was elected. For now, Beijing has made concessions and accepts the elected leaders.

In India, a mass protest against corruption peaked in August when an ascetic, Anna Harare, led a public 12-day hunger strike. Parliament is now near passage of a measure to set up a semi-independent body to prosecute official graft.

In Brazil, small protests led by a lawyers’ group are only a small part of anti-orruption activity. A new president, Dilma Rousseff, has been forced to fire her seventh minister because of corruption charges. And more than 100 lawmakers are under criminal investigation.

As in other countries, public perception and worry about corruption has risen in Brazil. According to Transparency International, such concerns have nearly doubled in recent years. Brazilian industries cite a loss of about 2 percent of economic growth to the effects of bribery and other graft.

Protesters around the world in 2011 had many demands: human rights, democracy, and clean government. But it is corruption that usually hits closest to home for most, either in petty bribery, lost opportunities for education, or badly built roads. One of the first acts after protests lead to democracy is the prosecution of former leaders for corruption.

Humanity’s natural desire for honest and fair society was in full bloom this year. Perhaps 2012 can be a time for replanting and watering that desire in even more countries.

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