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Civil society awakens in Russia: what next?

December 12, 2011, 15:34 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, December 12 (Itar-Tass) – The unprecedented over the past two decades opposition protest rally against rigged parliamentary elections has not led to clashes and riots, as many feared, but quite obviously served as a catalyst for the development of political processes in Russia. The civil society has apparently awakened. Now is the big question: what will happen next? The authorities will have to negotiate and compromise, experts believe.

The Moscow rally, according to the Interior Ministry, gathered 25 thousand people, and according to the organisers – up to 150 thousand. Those who tried to do the calculations on their own say that 60-70 thousand protesters gathered at one time, but some people were coming and going. The main demands of the action that has for the first time in a long period united the representatives of the system, non-system opposition and formerly apolitical Muscovites, were cancelling the results of the State Duma elections in which the ruling United Russia party scored about 50 percent of the vote - significantly more than it “really” scored, in the opinion of the opponents of the party. Rallies, although of a lesser scale, were also staged in nearly 80 cities across the country.

However, it were not political organisations that made people take to the streets. They gathered not at all to listen to the leaders of the Solidarity movement, PARNAS (People’s Freedom Party), the Communist Party (CPRF), Yabloko or Just Russia party. Not “professional dissenters,” but ordinary citizens who have overcome political apathy and fear, gathered on squares. Experts say that the very middle class, the emergence of which the government has been awaiting so long, took part in the rallies. It does not want either revolutions or return to the Soviet era, but is tired of political stagnation and is demanding changes.

Novye Izvestiya notes that the words “This is the beginning of the Russian Revolution” were met in Bolotnaya Square with a groan of disappointment. Some speakers were evoking indignation. When the leader of the Union of Soviet Officers, Yevgeny Kopyshev, ended his speech with a call to restore the Soviet regime, the crowd chanted “Down with the Soviet power!” Thousands of citizens were rather sceptically listening to speeches of the non-system opposition leaders, such as Boris Nemtsov or Yevgeniya Chirikova, and the Communist Party representative was even howled down.

Why citizens that have been passive until now cannot tolerate any longer? experts ask. “The answer lies in one simple phrase - they are sick and tired,” political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky told the Echo of Moscow radio station. “Concerning the elections rigging - this is a small, completely worthless pretext. The rigging undoubtedly took place, but its scale was not larger than in 2007. The thing is that it was a coincidence. It was an occasion to blow out what has been accumulating for years, at least over the past 2-3 years.”

Head of the Petersburg Politics Foundation Mikhail Vinogradov, quoted by RBC Daily, points out that a sharp politicisation of the society has happened. “But it happened not on the night of the vote count at the Duma elections, but in September at the United Russia party congress when Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin was announced. Those who gathered in Bolotnaya Square protested, in part, against such a scenario,” he said.

The opposition gave the government two weeks for fulfilling their demands, after which it promised to stage another rally, a considerably larger in scale, on December 24. The Saturday’s rally participants adopted a resolution of five paragraphs and gave the government two weeks to meet their demands, namely, recognise the elections null and void, to hold a repeat election, to dismiss the head of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), Vladimir Churov, to investigate violations at the December 4 elections and introduce amendments to the electoral law.

Writer Boris Akunin, who participated in the meeting, wrote in his blog that “all the steam will be taken by the whistle, if the protesters do not create a coordination centre and fix the demands of Muscovites.”

Writer Zakhar Prilepin most briefly summarised the rally results “It was a wonderful day yesterday, certainly. We have stood well as had a good drink after that. Everybody loves and respects each other. Only one thing is worrying: they will not give us anything. They told us their favourite phrase – “We have heard you.’”

The Kremlin has already reacted to what is happening, analysts say, however. This became evident when the Bolotnaya Square meeting was shown with a high degree of objectivity in the final evening news programs of the federal TV channels on December 10. Television has for the first time said that “tens of thousands of people” gathered for a protests rally against falsification of the elections in favour of United Russia, and a real picture of the crowd was shown. According to RBC Daily, this order came from the Kremlin, it was given personally by the president.

President Dmitry Medvedev reacted to the protests on his Facebook page in the Internet on Sunday. “Under the Constitution Russian citizens enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. People have a right to express their position, which they did yesterday. It is good that everything was within the law,” he wrote in the social network. “I do not agree with any slogans or with the statements made at the meetings. Yet I issued instructions to check all the reports from the polling stations concerning the observance of the election law.”

On Sunday, CEC member with a consultative vote, member of the Communist Party Kirill Serdyukov proposed to the CEC to put on the agenda the issue of Churov’s resignation. However, the CEC majority rejected this proposal.

Former co-chair of the Right Cause party Leonid Gozman, quoted by the Vedomosti newspaper, believes that the authorities are scared and it is too early to judge whether they are ready to make concessions, or, on the contrary, to crack down. Also, there is no person so far to negotiate with the authorities on behalf of the protesters – they have no obvious and recognised leader, the politician said.

The mass protest rallies on December 10 have raised before the Russian government issues that to which is has not found an answer yet, believes Nezavisimaya Gazeta. They may call into question the post-election configuration of power, which was announced at the United Russia congress on September 24.

The publication cites the opinion of experts who believe that Putin and Medvedev will not give up their plans. Deputy Director of the Centre for Political Technologies Alexei Makarkin stressed that although from a formal point of view United Russia has gained the majority, the legitimacy of the elections was called into question by Saturday rally participants. However, the expert believes, one of the most important causes of the middle class indignation was “swapping places” (by the ruling tandem). “People have felt that everything was decided without them.” However, the situation will not make the tandem to revise its decision, Makarkin is certain: “Otherwise, it will undermine the principle of informal arrangements.”

Political scientist Boris Makarenko believes that changing the tandem’s plans would mean recognition of United Russia’s defeat. However, he is confident that both the prime minister and president must draw conclusions from what is happening: “Such a political system is absolutely unusable.” The expert believes that one of the main mistakes of the authorities is the failure of the right-wing liberal project: “Had the authorities not strangled the Right Cause party of Mikhail Prokhorov, United Russia would have a reasonable partner on the right. Instead, the authorities made the urban middle class, which is centre-right in nature, to give their votes to the left.”

Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin who was dismissed from his post by the president in September because of disagreements with him on economic issues, said in an interview with the Vedomosti newspaper that it is necessary to create a new right-wing party and expressed his willingness to support it.

This force, he suggested, could take 10 percent or 20 percent in the next State Duma. According to Kudrin, the very presence of such a party in the political arena, not necessarily in the State Duma, can change the situation in the country.

Answering a question whether he sees himself at present as the head of the new right-wing party, Kudrin noted that “we are not talking about a more distant opportunity to head this process,” but he is ready to support the consolidation of liberal forces. The former minister confirmed that he currently maintains contact with Prokhorov, but so far they have no agreements on the party creation.