Russia's Protest Movement: Big, Angry, and Preparing for the Worst

Saturday's mass demonstration in Moscow had plenty of fiery rhetoric, but what happens next?

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Demonstrators rally in Moscow / AP

MOSCOW -- Perhaps only the police helicopters circling overhead could accurately estimate the number of demonstrators braving the fierce cold to protest on Sakharov Prospekt on 24 December against the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the apparently rigged elections to the State Duma held 20 days earlier. The state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported the laughably low figure of 29 thousand, the event's organizers claimed 120 thousand were in attendance (which, as far as I could gauge, appeared closer to the truth); but the respected daily Kommersant put the figure at 200 thousand.

Whatever the number, gone are the times when a small cluster of hardened oppositionists gathered on the central Triumfal'naya Square to suffer almost immediate arrest, without arousing the evident interest or sympathy of passers-by. After several half-measures announced by the government to redress public outrage over the Duma polls and Putin's televised swipe at demonstrators as condom-draped stooges of Hillary Clinton, the opposition has grown exponentially and hardened the tone of its demands. It has, in short, seized the initiative -- and shows no sign of backing down.

Demonstrations took place across Russia on Saturday. But peopling the crowd in Moscow were folks young, middle-aged, and old -- some very old, in fact. The speakers, including anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and former World Chess champion Garry Kasparov, delivered blazing denunciations of Putin, President Dmitri Medvedev, and the elections.

The most incendiary address, transmitted via video on a giant screen by the podium, came from Sergey Udaltsov, the 34-year-old leader of the radical left movement Vanguard of the Red Youth. Gaunt, pale, and with shaved head, Udaltsov, in detention and on a hunger strike since his arrest on December 4th, far exceeded in rhetorical vehemence the now commonplace monikers "crooks and thieves" applied to the pro-Putin United Russia party. Putin and Medvedev are, in his trenchant lexicon, "the tandem dwarfs;" more broadly, he labeled them and their colleagues "Kremlin bandits," "vermin," "filth," "swine," "the dark forces of evil," not society's "elite," but its "shit."

Russian oppositionists frequently denounce their leaders in such language, but not often on tape (now posted online) before a huge crowd in the capital's center. "Tandem dwarfs" caught on among subsequent speakers -- and this in a country where personalized, public ridicule of the authorities doesn't happen often. The next day, a Moscow municipal court extended Udaltsov's detention for a further 10 days, charging him with "disobeying the police." Owing to his hunger strike, his health is reported to be deteriorating.

The Democracy ReportAfter citing the Occupy Wall Street campaign and calling Russian protestors the "99 percent," Udaltsov laid out the protest movement's principle demands: cancellation of the State Duma election results, new elections to be held "under citizens' control," the departure of the president and government, and the drafting of new electoral and tax laws, the latter to eliminate what he termed the "monstrous social inequality" in Russia. He also called on opposition deputies (those, that is, who purport to oppose the Putin government) just seated in the State Duma to renounce their tainted mandates "or history will not forgive your treachery."

Putin's popularity, according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, stands at 42 percent, down some 20 points since the beginning of the year. He is still officially favored to win presidential polls scheduled for next March, but thanks largely to the arcane machinations of Russia's Central Electoral Commission, genuine opposition leaders -- from Navalny to Udaltsov to Kasparov and others -- will probably be prevented from presenting their candidacy, in the unlikely event that they should even decide to compete.

Opposition leaders at Saturday's protests made clear that they see the Putin-Medvedev duo, and any elections they hold, as illegitimate -- a sign that the many of the protestors might not be willing to accept less than Putin's (and Medvedev's) departure and the resignation of their government. After all, once you have termed your leadership "swine," "thieves," "crooks" and "bandits," how could you accept their continued rule? Any participation in their elections could be seen as tantamount to the "treachery" that Udaltsov condemned, when he explicitly ruled out compromise: "Do no trust at all the tandem dwarfs!"

Toward the end of his address, Udaltsov called on the opposition to organize, to prepare to serve as a national salvation front, and even, if necessary, to become a transitional government. The movement still lacks a single leader, but one thing unites them all: the stated determination to force Vladimir Putin from power.

Udaltsov appealed for another mass demonstration at the end of January. If the protests persist and presidential elections are held under the current circumstances (with Putin and his cohorts controlling all branches of government and dominating the airwaves), it's difficult to predict how demonstrators will react, or even if there could be a risk of violence. Navalny warned of this, if obliquely, telling the assembled crowd that it was substantial enough to seize the Kremlin. Watching protest leaders heighten their rhetoric as the regime digs in, and remembering past episodes of political violence such as the October 1993 crisis in which 187 people were killed, one hopes that the government takes the protestors' demands seriously and act on them -- before it is too late.