Russia's New Decemberists Gear Up for Massive Dec. 24 Protests
Photo Credit: Cea via Flickr
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This December, Russia has seen its biggest opposition protests in two decades, and as Moscow braces for another mass rally on December 24, comparisons have been drawn between events in Russia and the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as the Arab Spring.
While aspects of what is happening on the ground in Russia do echo OWS, commentators who link the Russian opposition to uprisings in Egypt, Libya, et al. are misguided.
The opposition took to the streets in Russia following the December 4 State Duma elections. Although the ruling United Russia party, which has been steadily slipping in popularity, did take a predictable hit at the polls and lost its two-thirds Duma majority, widespread reports of voter fraud enraged many ordinary Russians. Discontent has been growing for some time and in many ways, the December 4 elections were merely the tipping point.
Opposition figures in Russia have long been derided as out-of-touch, catering to a small group of individuals who are accused by opponents of being “paid by the West," but the December protests have shown that discontent with the ruling elites in the country is a sentiment shared by diverse people. Anarchists and nationalists marched alongside angry communist grandmas and cosmopolitan twenty-somethings who found out about the protests via Facebook.
Anti-corruption crusader and blogger Alexei Navalny, thrown in jail for 15 days at the start of the protests, was already popular before December. Now many are openly speculating that he will be the Russian president one of these days. And while it is predicted that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will be elected president again in the upcoming March 4 elections, Putin himself has gone from mostly ignoring Navalny to calling him the leader of the opposition.
“They call us Internet lemmings!” Navalny roared into his microphone at a December 6 protest, before he was arrested. “I’m an Internet lemming! And I will tear these bastards’ throats!” Coming out of jail, Navalny, who is tied to nationalist causes and says the Kremlin should stop financing the likes of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, told reporters that he knows he has “nothing to fear.” (Kadyrov’s iron-fisted rule in Chechnya is the price the republic currently pays for stability. Following the December 4 elections, poll numbers out of Chechnya were particularly incredible, with nearly 100 percent supposedly going to United Russia.)
While Occupy Wall Street deals with legalized corruption, aka lobbying, the Russian opposition faces illegal corruption that is blatant and out-in-the-open; it faces a wealthy class that is so breathtakingly sure of its inalienable right to rob its fellow citizens that it sees no need to cover itself with a fig leaf of special interest groups and campaign donations. While the opposition chants at Putin to leave, most of the “bastards” that Navalny speaks of are not led by Putin in the strictest sense -- that's beside the fact that Navalny includes both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev on his list of bastards. Instead, they are a kind of cancer on both Russian society and government, a cancer that began under the Soviets and grew out of all proportion during the 1990s.
And while Navalny himself has written on his blog that the first years of Putin’s rule were marked by positive economic developments in particular, today’s opposition is united in the belief that the prime minister has failed to deliver on his promises. They see the country’s vast natural resources remaining under the thumb of the wealthy few, they see chaos in healthcare and a meltdown of the transportation system, they are tired of journalists being attacked, they are angry about the elites doing everything from illegally forcing their way down the roads to cutting down forests without input from the public -- and they want change.