A month ago, there was a surprising moment at a sporting match in Russia when Vladimir Putin was booed in public for the first time in anyone’s memory. This brief episode turned out to be a small revelatory event that unmasked a significant truth: the Russian people were determined to reclaim their democracy.
Unfortunately, their chance at a true democracy was denied during Sunday’s Duma elections which were neither free nor fair. Even Mikhail Gorbachev has now denounced the elections as fraudulent. Apart from rampant ballot stuffing and widespread reports of people voting at multiple polling places, there were many other forms of intimidation intended to gain votes for Putin’s United Russia party, including harassment and fines for Russia’s independent election monitoring group, Golos, and the shut-down of popular internet media sites.
Though these efforts produced laughable results from outlying regions where United Russia received over 99% of the vote out of seven parties on the ballot, overall Putin’s party only garnered 49.5% nationwide. One would think that if you worked so diligently to steal an election, you should go big or go home.
It is well known that much of the election tampering took place before a single ballot was cast. The most credible and vibrant opposition parties were prohibited from running in the elections, and the country’s entire media apparatus was used as a propaganda machine for Putin’s United Russia. As one independent Swiss election monitor said, “These elections were like a game in which only some players were allowed to play, and on top of it the field was tilted in favor of one of the players.”
When the Russian people gave their verdict on this outrageous and undemocratic manipulation, their answer was a resounding rejection of much more than electoral fraud. They were saying no to the rampant corruption that characterizes the current Russian government at every level. They were saying no to the shadow war against the free press that has seen more than 150 journalists who sought to expose government misdeeds slain under highly suspicious circumstances. They were saying no to the “legal nihilism” in which the Judiciary is used as an instrument for persecution and blackmail by the government. And perhaps they were also saying no to the slanderous historic notion that the Russian people want a strong Tsar to rule and protect them instead of a vibrant democracy.
In the aftermath of last week’s election, one thing is clear. VladimirPutin has lost much of his legitimacy and perhaps his inevitability as well. Unfortunately, this message is not sitting well with the current government. This week major pro-democracy demonstrations have taken place in Moscow and the regime has reacted with mass arrests and the movement of additional security forces into the Capitol.
Today Russia finds itself at a cross-road, and it must move towards genuine democracy or towards greater repression. As Americans, we must support the Russian people in their pursuit of freedom and democracy, both for their sake and for ours. Let us hope that the on-coming Russian winter will not freeze the new signs of a “Russian spring.”