Crackdown on Moscow Protesters Begins the Fight for Russia's Future

On Sunday Russia held its presidential election. The next day, March 5, saw a protest that demonstrated how Russia’s rulers intend to deal with those who disagree with its result. In short, despite the protests that began in December, the Kremlin is not prepared to change its internal politics, and an artificially-constructed rift in Russian society is still in place.


Moscow journalists and observers were in no doubt that the March 4 election — in which voters would decide who should lead the country through the next six years — would not be a fair one. The list of candidates included only those who presented no threat to the present holders of power; the ruling party candidate, Vladimir Putin, had an immense advantage in terms of visibility in the media; and the judiciary and media, which should have spoken out against these irregularities, are still mostly under Kremlin control. The main issue around March 4 was whether the actual election would be "clean" on the day. People representing the ruling party insisted that this was the first priority of their candidate Vladimir Putin.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission said the election "was assessed negatively."  "There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt," said Tonino Picula, head of the short-term observer mission.

The reality was somewhat different: this election was marred by widespread fraud; observers were removed from polling stations; the most obvious irregularity was the frequent suspicious appearance of extra lists of voters and the so-called "carousel," where people were bussed around to vote several times in different places. These infringements were reported all over the country, and were also widespread in Moscow.

Putin’s inevitable victory

Despite the fact that vote counting takes time, on Sunday afternoon preparations for a Putin victory rally were already under way. To be more precise, the fact that it would be happening was already known several days before the election: public sector employees talked about being forced to turn up at a rally on the evening of March 4 or risk problems at work. At this point the last doubts about a Putin victory disappeared. 

The opposition prepared its response. The organisers of the "For Fair Elections" meetings managed, with great difficulty, to gain permission from the Mayor of Moscow for a protest action on Pushkin Square, in the centre of the capital. The action was scheduled for seven o’clock in the evening –  when Putin had already been declared president of Russia.

In the final weeks before March 4 the thrust of Putin’s election campaign had been finalised: aggressive rhetoric and complete confidence in the rightness of his actions. At a rally at the Luzhniki stadium on 23rd February, before an audience mainly consisting of coerced public sector workers, Putin quoted a poem by Mikhail Lermontov whose subject was the war with Napoleon in 1812. "An Election is a war" could be one of the ruling party candidate’s main slogans. What’s more, the Kremlin’s attitude to those who disagreed with its politics was reminiscent of the treatment of a defeated enemy – pitiless and merciless. Vladimir Putin openly claimed  that foreign powers were involved in the organisation of "For Fair Elections" rallies,  and people taking part in protest actions were subjected to streams of abuse from his representatives. The impression grew that "two Russias" had appeared, which their rulers were determined should clash with one another.

The divided capital

On the morning of March 4 Muscovites could have been forgiven for thinking that a war had already begun: all the capital’s central squares were occupied by trucks carrying police officers and soldiers. Water cannons had appeared on the streets, although their use is forbidden in sub zero temperatures. Several thousand young men as well as people from outside Moscow had been bussed into the city: they told me that they "had come to support Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]." In they evening they were all mustered on Moscow’s central Manezh Square, where more than 100,000 people greeted current president Dmitry Medvedev and his newly elected successor Vladimir Putin. Putin, returning to the Kremlin for a third term, thanked the assembled crowd with tears in his eyes – whether from emotion or the strong wind is unclear. Medvedev declared that "we will not hand over our victory to anyone."

A heavy presence of police anti-riot units on the streets of Moscow was no doubt designed to exert psychological pressure on opponents of the regime. Police trucks, buses and water canons could be seen throughout Moscow city centre

And indeed the actions of the powers that be on the 4th and 5th of March showed beyond any doubt that the country’s current rulers are in no way inclined to give up their "victory" or power. No lessons had been learned from their experience of the December parliamentary elections, and the presidential election was one of the "dirtiest" of recent years: Vladimir Putin’s victory in the first round was ensured only by a resort to widespread administrative measures and massive vote rigging at polling stations. And it is these tactics that have widened the gulf between those who support him and those who have come out onto the streets to protest against him.

There were fewer anti-Putin demonstrators on the streets on March 5 than observers had expected: about 20,000 gathered on Pushkin Square. Their mood was very different from that of December. Instead of smiles there was determination on their faces, instead of jokey placards and balloons there were concrete and radical political demands. The rally lasted about two hours, with speeches from all the leading activists of the present protest movement. Afterwards a few hundred people announced that they planned to remain in Pushkin Square all night, but the police wouldn’t allow them to do so. Moscow hasn’t seen such a rough crackdown in a long time: the police arrested protesters with much twisting of arms and necks. People were flung to the ground, without regard for age or sex. One demonstrator, Alyona Popova, had her arm broken. Journalists meanwhile were physically ejected from the square. In other words, President Medvedev’s words were confirmed by deeds – the ruling clique has no intention of handing its victory over to anyone.

Police arrested dozens of protesters after forcibly breaking up an anti-Putin rally on Pushkin Square.

The opposition – what next?

The opposition is facing a dilemma. The events of March 5 have shown that the Kremlin is in no mood for concessions, and the time for compromise has passed – any attempt to question Putin’s victory in the presidential election will be harshly suppressed. This inevitably pushes the opposition towards more radical forms of protest. But how many of those who have been involved in protests since December are ready for this? The core of the protest movement consists, after all, of well paid members of the middle class, accustomed to leading a comfortable life.  Time will tell.

On the other hand, what happens next will depend to a large extent on the actions of Russia’s new government. When Putin came to power for the first time, he adopted a "tightening the screws" policy, with the abolition of freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary and the suppression of other basic rights and freedoms. A continuation of this policy today might be counterproductive: in the Russia of 2011-2012 a major role is played by the internet. Information of any kind is transmitted instantaneously; people mobilize and go out on the streets.

I can say confidently that the return of political life to Russia that took place last December did not end under the police batons on March 5. The standoff between the Kremlin and the protesters continues. But whether it will grow in strength or gradually fade away in despair will become clear in the next few, spring, months.

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