MOSCOW - Russia held its parliamentary elections on Sunday. As of yesterday, the chairman of the country's central elections commission, Vladimir Churov, had told the Russian president that 99.999 percent of votes had been processed. Thanking him for his efficient work, Dmitry Medvedev called Churov "a true magician."
Meanwhile, government officials, members of the elections commission and the pro-Kremlin media outlets have been celebrating the victory. But online, citizens are posting complaints - so far uncensored - backed up by photographs and videos documenting election fraud. Indeed, it increasingly appears that the vote was rigged.
Thousands of people who felt cheated took to Moscow's streets this week, with cries of "Give me back my vote" and "Down with Putin," referring to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Some people are urging a revolution. But who are these people, and why have they suddenly shed their apathy? After all, Russians' indifference to their country's general lawlessness has amazed the world for some time.
This was an unexpected turn of events. In the previous elections, the ruling party won an absolute majority in parliament, the Duma. The intellectuals didn't bother to vote and did what they have done best since the Communist period: they grumbled in "kitchen conversations" for a few weeks about the number of fictitious votes and about the intellectuals' alienation from the people.
The first sign of change appeared September 24, the day the great riddle of Russian politics was finally solved, namely who the ruling party's presidential candidate would be: Medvedev again, or maybe Putin again? The duo stated that Putin would be running for presidency, while Medvedev would become prime minister (again ). The response to the announcement was surprising. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief, the nation felt insulted. Not so much because of the anticipated role switch, but because of the tone in which it was declared.
People suddenly felt like someone had spat in their face, as nonchalantly as they had been told that the change at the top had been planned well before September, and in the light of the December victory, which would surely be overwhelming, and the presidential victory in March, Russia would continue to live happily and calmly under the old-new president.
Slowly but surely, the Russian middle class began to feel that its relative stability and prosperity during the Putin decade could no longer justify the daily humiliation they felt: the humiliation of bribing officials who have lost all shame; the humiliation of encountering corrupt law-enforcement officials and a judiciary run based on directives from on high; and the humiliation of watching the news on the government channels, which lie brazenly about every conceivable subject. The fact that you can buy a new iPad or travel abroad is no longer enough to distract you from the thought that you, too, like attorney Sergei Magnitsky, can be killed in prison for no reason other than because you protested the anarchy.
It can therefore be assumed that the authorities' means of obtaining the election results was a catalyst for the furor: Russians are increasingly suspicious that the polling station committees were given the so-called election results even before the vote started, and that the committee members needed only carry out their bosses' wishes through any of the dozens of methods at their disposal.
For the first time in a long time, there were polling-station observers who had no political connection - in fact, they themselves hadn't bothered to vote over the past decade. These volunteers admitted that they were fed up with the state of the country as a whole and with the elections in particular.
One of the co-authors of this article was one of these observers. She saw with her own eyes what went on and witnessed the formulation of "required results" at a polling station. After election day, the observers told their story online, without sparing words or feelings. And they certainly had a story to tell.
They documented a range of fraudulent methods: ballot stuffing by polling station committee members and by citizens whom had been bribed; validation of ballots cast by deceased people; and invalidation of "incorrect" ballots. There was one report of voters who came to vote, only to learn that someone had already voted in their names. There were also reports of coerced votes (i.e., managers convened employees and forced them to vote for particular candidates, under threat of dismissal ), of double votes via forged papers (the so-called "carousel" method ) and much more.
However, the most monstrous fraud took place during the counting of the ballots. As a co-author of this article witnessed, one Moscow polling station committee piled up ballots and said, "These are the votes for United Russia" - Putin's party - even though some were clearly in favor of other parties. The committee rejected a request to review the ballots, as is mandated by law, or even to publicize the exact tally. Despite observers' protests, the counting process ended in record time, the ballots were packed in boxes and taken to the district elections commissions, and complaints were ignored.
Throughout election day there were also reports of observers being expelled from the polling stations for no good reason, of being tricked, and in some cases beaten. Suddenly the Russians were looking reality in the eye and seeing that they were being defrauded in broad daylight. There was no response from the authorities, other than the president's scornful comment, "I saw those materials, all they contain is outcries."
No food or water
On Monday, a protest was held in downtown Moscow, the first of several demonstrations. The rally drew 7,000, most of them people who probably never take part in demonstrations. They are the members of the much-maligned middle class, those who for the past decade have made do with sarcastic comments online about the political situation. Now, though, furious at the brazen display of deception, and at their own helplessness, they took to the streets.
It was simultaneously odd and very natural to be among these people, who were well dressed and felt a certain discomfort to be standing in a crowd and shouting in the pouring rain. But what united them was the clear understanding that they must not leave. Some 300 people were arrested that evening.
One of them was Alexei Navalny, a blogger who gained fame after exposing governmental corruption. Also taken into custody was Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Solidarity movement. Both were sentenced to 15 days in prison for resisting arrest - a totally groundless charge, as was evident in a video of their detention.
The next day, army troops were brought into Moscow. That evening a protest was held in Triumfalnaya Square, without the authorities' permission. The security forces reacted with violence, and the events were broadcast live online. In addition to the police, young people from the pro-Kremlin movements Nashi and Stal (Steel ) showed up with drums and tried to stir things up; no one dispersed them. The demonstrators, in contrast, were dispersed en masse. Dozens were viciously beaten, including a reporter for the popular newspaper Kommersant, Alexander Chernich, and a parliamentary candidate for the Fair Russia party, Alena Popova.
According to some reports, about 500 people were arrested on Tuesday, including leaders of the opposition movements, journalists and even passersby who were taken into custody and afterward released without being charged. The detainees from the earlier demonstration are still being held at the municipal police station, without food or water and without having been formally charged.
"We are not obliged to feed the detainees," the police stated openly. After this was published online, many bloggers brought the prisoners food, drink and warm clothing.
The next demonstration is scheduled for tomorrow, and rumors have been circulating about Chechen troops being deployed in one Moscow neighborhood. Lively discussions are underway online about the methods and options for protesting. Web commentators are demanding a declaration that the elections were illegitimate and asking for a recount.
The protests have drawn cultural figures who generally shun politics to center stage. For example, well-known writer Boris Akunin published a trenchant article calling for a boycott of the presidential elections. "Let the whole country be filled with election campaigning and the ballot boxes empty," he wrote.
Russians trust neither the ruling party nor parliamentary opposition leaders, who have been ingratiating themselves to the Kremlin, playing politics with the leadership, forging alliances and achieving compromises - and in practice doing nothing. New leaders who might be able to represent the protesters (a group that includes Yevgenia Chirikova, Alexei Navalny, Yevgeny Roisman, Konstantin Krylov and Ilya Yashin ) have no access to legitimate political processes. The opposition is becoming extreme. The only way out of the authorities' political morass is the politics of city squares.
The worst thing about the pre-revolutionary situation in Russia is that Putin and his colleagues have created a genuine trap : A wave of revolutionary rage usually brings fascists and nationalists to power, who will probably cry out once more, "Russia for the Russians!" and "Plunder everything and redistribute it!"
It is all too easy to guess what this means for the iPad owners used to vacationing in Europe. Nevertheless, they are joining the demonstrations, because they can no longer allow themselves not to. For a time we pawned our sense of self-respect for stability, but it's time to call in the marker for all it's worth.
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