[Update a day later: The demonstrations in Moscow and around Russia were well-attended and largely peaceful. Best slogan so far: I didn't vote for these bastards. I voted for the other bastards. Sums it all up adequately. Very few people seem to think that Zyuganov (Communists) or Zhirinovsky (Lib Dems) is a viable alternative to Putin. (The rest of the opposition is comprised of midgets.) This is all about the process of sending a message and making sure it is received and, most importantly, processed adequately. It's this last bit that bears watching (sorry about the bear pun).]
Russia has recently held parliamentary elections, which were, by most accounts, riddled with fraud. In the aftermath of the election, protests have erupted in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other parts of Russia. In the run-up to the elections, Putin's United Russia party was characterized as "Party of Swindlers and Thieves," known for phenomenal levels of corruption and for enshrining a new, untouchable bureaucratic aristocracy, bloated on siphoned-off oil and gas revenues, who refer to the commonplace bribes as "gratitude." In polling prior to the election, United Russia was garnering only some 15% of the vote, behind both the Communists and the Liberal Democrats. But thanks to rampant ballot stuffing, vote miscounting and other types of forgery, often carried out quite openly, it came in with a majority. The number of votes for United Russia was roughly doubled. Now it seems that the fraudulent tallies will be disputed in the courts. The word "revolution" is being bandied about only half-jokingly.
Public disillusionment with Putin was already quite profound before the elections, but the ensuing protests are something new in Russia's recent political experience: people who were not likely to protest up until this point have decided to turn up. Many of them have clearly decided that enough is enough. But I feel that they are being misread, both in Russia and in the West. In Russia, commentators from the official media are eager to paint them orange: they are stooges propped up by operatives and money from the US State Department, which wants to strip Russia of its sovereignty and turn it into another Libya. Western commentators, meanwhile, seem to believe that Russia is, variously, about to revert into the USSR, or to go through another revolution. All of this is pretty much nonsense. Whether their demand is voiced in exactly these terms or not, what will make these protesters go home, and then peacefully show up and vote the next time, is full and immediate enforcement of Chapter 141 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation: "Obstruction of voting rights or work of election commissions: ...punishable by a fine from 200 to 500... [minimum monthly] wages... or correctional labor for a term of one year to two years, or imprisonment for up to six months, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years." The operatives in the field would get a stiff fine, the middle-managers of this election fraud extravaganza would get to cool their heels, and the masterminds and orchestrators of the fraud would get five years in the slammer. This would placate the electorate, and also make a replay highly unlikely.
But just how far gone is Putin's government? The evidence so far is that they are still feeling invincible, and are willing to resort to repression in order to make the election results stick. But the Russian people want to express themselves; they want to be heard; they want those who hear them to make the required changes in response. Immediately after the election Medvedev was quick to start talking about coalition-building, but then the inertia of the party apparatus took over. Everybody wants to keep their seat, votes be damned. And now arrests are being made, troop carriers are rolling in and helicopters are circling overhead: these are not the right moves for opening a dialog and offering to make amends. Tomorrow, 10 of December, is likely to see large demonstrations. Perhaps it will turn out to be a date for the history books. Or perhaps the government will come to their senses in time, and start clawing back the legitimacy they have so foolishly squandered.
If they fail to do so, they would be setting the stage for, if not a revolution, then at least a rebellion. The outraged but well-meaning and peaceful crowds of protesters of today would, over a period of months or years, morph into a surly, implacable, vicious mob ready to drown the government in their own blood. In due course, their instinct for self-preservation will become suppressed, as other, opportunistic, idealistic or heroic motivations move to the forefront. The progression is the same everywhere: first the people ask, then they demand, then they come and they take. For now, talk of revolution is restricted to those, both in the West and in Russia, who use it to justify their budgets for fermenting or suppressing revolt, respectively. They are, in both cases, a waste of public money.
But if this dynamic were allowed to develop, then much more would be lost. Under Putin, Russia has become more stable and more prosperous. The cities have become more vibrant, and life has become better for many people, not just the ones at the very top. In striking contrast to the USA or the European Union, Russia is solvent rather than bankrupt. Putin gets the credit for these achievements. The slogan of his "United Russia"—"The future is ours"—is overweening and pompous (and, inadvertently, reminiscent of the Third Reich!) but, in some part thanks to his efforts, Russia does have a discernible future in a way that the US and the EU do not.
Given that this is the case, one would expect the more thoughtful people in the US and in Europe to simply stand back and watch, hoping to learn something. Yet mindsets are slow to change, and some of them are still operating with their illusions of imperial power intact. Some of them are seeing orange, and thinking that there might be an opening to smuggle a neocon like Gary Kasparov into the Kremlin. But to a great many Russians their ruse of promoting "freedom and democracy" is already transparent: what they want to do is to destroy Russia's sovereignty. They almost succeeded in destroying it in the 1990s; they won't get that chance again. Now is not their time to try to influence Russian politics; now is their time to shrivel up.