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Analysis & Opinion
06.12.11 Spilling Over
By Andrew Roth

Russian oppositionists spilled onto the streets of the Chistiye Prudi park in Moscow last night by the thousands to protest the results of Sunday’s State Duma Elections amid allegations of massive voter fraud. The liberal demonstration, organized by the banned Solidarnost movement, was the largest that Russia has seen in years. After several hours of peaceful protesting, an attempt to march on the headquarters of the Russian Security Services at Lubyanka devolved into violence, as police detained hundreds of protestors, including de facto opposition leader and corruption whistleblower Alexei Navalny.

By seven in the evening, the time marked for the beginning of the protest, Chistiye Prudi was mobbed and police had slowed the stream of protestors into the park to a trickle. Hundreds more lined up along streets adjoining the park in freezing December rain to whistle and jeer Russia’s leading party, United Russia, as well as its leaders Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. On a stage emblazoned with the logo “Return Power to the People” Russia’s best known opposition figures, from cultural leaders like Navalny and opposition music critic Artemy Troitsky to opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Solidarnost youth leader Ilya Yashin, addressed the hyped-up crowds.

“To all of those who voted on Saturday, I want you to raise your hands,” Navalny asked the crowd and thousands raised their hands in the air. “Thank you, thank you. What we told them on Sunday is this: ‘we exist.’” The crowd returned to booing and blowing orange plastic whistles, which had been distributed before the event as a symbolic nod to Putin’s booing at a recent mixed martial arts match in Moscow, seen as a watershed moment in the prime minister’s growing unpopularity. “They’ll hear that voice and fear us,” shouted Navalny.

“Russia without Putin,” was the emphatic response from the audience, a refrain that repeated itself throughout the night. Alex, a 19-year-old student at Moscow State University, said that he had come down to Chistiye Prudi to protest the elections and “another 12 years of Putin,” referring to the possibility of Putin serving another two terms as president after his protege, Medvedev, said he would not run for a second term. “I almost didn’t go to vote yesterday but there were so many people who told me that I should,” he said. “We made a point in the elections, even though they were falsified. And if everyone stays involved and it doesn’t go back to how it was, maybe we can make a bigger one in the March [presidential] elections.”

Several hours into the demonstration, after leading opposition figures had already spoken and the rally seemed to be winding down, Solidarnost youth leader Ilya Yashin told protestors “we’re marching on the Lubyanka,” more than a mile away through central Moscow. Protestors began streaming out of the park but were met by Russia’s riot police, the OMON, on Mysnitskaya Street, where hundreds were detained. Drivers in Moscow, used to sitting in mile-long traffic jams, but not used to hearing shouts of “Down with United Russia” on Russia’s dark boulevards, honked horns in support. As protestors approached Lubyanka, they ran into a wall of OMON riot police – local press reported that several hundred protestors were detained.

At once, it seems, the elections seem to have both revived Moscow’s long dormant liberal opposition with United Russia’s considerable drop in popularity and have served as a rallying point around widely reported election tampering. Moscow has served as one of the key points for public reaction: whereas exit polls by the Fund for Public Opinion showed United Russia support at 27.5 percent, the city officially gave United Russia close to 47 percent of its ballots. “I don’t know one person who voted for them,” said Mikhail, an unemployed 26-year-old, “and neither do any of my friends. There is no way they won that much of the vote honestly.”

OSCE elections observers yesterday gave a mixed review to the elections, saying that despite a lack of a level playing field, “voters took advantage of [their] right to express choice.” “The OSCE’s response was based on the intimidation voters encountered during the campaign, the lack of independence of the federal Elections Commissions, and then in several occasions, voters being bused in to turn in large batches of ballots,” OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Spokesman and voting monitor Neil Simon told Russia Profile. “At our own polling station in Central Moscow, the Elections Committee tried to wait until we left the building in order to count the votes, but in the end, we waited them out.”

Throughout the day, social networks were jammed with both denial of service attacks against liberal Web sites and videos of supposed voter fraud taking place. YouTube clips like this one show “carousels” of voters submitting ballots at more than ten different polling stations, vote counters opening up a ballot box that has been stuffed with votes for United Russia, and pens with erasable ink being used at a Moscow polling station.

Russia’s only independent elections watchdog Golos, which has been embroiled in conflict with the state Elections Commission and was also knocked offline by cyber attacks yesterday, released a report on the elections which both noted serious violations and growing “public control” over the elections process. Nonetheless, Golos went one step further than the OSCE, writing: “[E]lection committees allowed meaningful violations of law, which put the results of the elections into question.”

For the first time in the recent history of small, ephemeral liberal protests, OMON riot police were staring down crowds far larger than they were used to handling, who chanted “shame” as police threw protestors into buses, and “down with the police state.” Even during the violence, at moments the protests maintained the same giddy attitude of a liberal movement that had finally found its footing: as one protestor was hauled off toward a waiting police bus already packed with those detained, he called out: “Wait for me!” before he was pushed aboard and the bus took off for the police station.
The source
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