Chanting 'Russia without Putin,' flash mobs roil Moscow
Protesters across Russia march against Vladimir Putin's ruling party following allegations of official vote-rigging in last weekend's Duma elections.
Moscow was uncommonly tense Wednesday, with tens of thousands of riot police patrolling the streets and helicopters buzzing overhead, while opposition leaders promised more flash-mob-type demonstrations to protest alleged official vote-rigging in last weekend's bitterly contested Duma elections.Skip to next paragraph
For more than a decade, Russians appear to have quietly accepted Vladimir Putin's system of "managed democracy." The system utilizes a toolbox full of official measures to ensure that only Kremlin-approved parties and candidates get elected, and that the decisive share of votes is always won by the ruling party, United Russia (UR), which has been headed by Mr. Putin for much of its existence.
But on Monday, after official returns showed UR winning almost 50 percent of the votes – down sharply from the 64 percent it won in 2007 polls – up to 10,000 protesters, informed mainly through social media, converged on the downtown Chistye Prudhi metro station. They attempted to march to the Kremlin, shouting slogans like "down with the police state" and "Russia without Putin." About 300 were detained, and a few such as radical blogger Alexei Navalny and liberal opposition leader Ilya Yashin were subsequently handed 15-day prison sentences for "refusing to follow a lawful police order."
The next evening, hundreds more jostled with thousands of heavily-armored riot police on Moscow's downtown Triumph Square, and another 250 were detained, including former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a co-leader of the banned liberal PARNAS party, and Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, which officially won about 3 percent of the votes in Sunday's election. Protest rallies were also reported in other Russian cities Tuesday, including St. Petersburg, the Volga center of Samara, and the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.
"No one expected the public mood to snap like this; these rallies caught everyone by surprise," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow.
"What is most remarkable is that the people we are seeing in the streets now are not the usual handful of hard-core protesters," who turn out for regular anti-Kremlin rallies on Triumph Square, he adds.
"These are completely new people, responsible, mature people, who are finally fed up with the open official lies and manipulations that everyone is expected to swallow, and see public protest as the only respectable option. Even a few weeks ago, for these people, taking to the streets would have been unthinkable. But now they feel pushed against the wall," he adds.