Russia: Thousands arrested after two days of street protests

Fraudulent elections expose vulnerability of Putin’s rule

On Tuesday 6 December, Russian blogs and sites were full of reports of troops flooding into Moscow. Photographs appeared showing convoys of white buses being escorted down the main highways. People who turned out to unsanctioned protests on Tuesday evening knew they were facing risks. But still thousands of youth turned out to protest at the way in which Prime Minister Putin manipulated Sunday’s election. His party, United Russia, was left with a majority of 13 seats in the Russian Duma (Parliament).

The regime was well prepared. During the election, up to 50,000 “pro-Kremlin” youth were drafted into Moscow to combat any opposition activities and protests. These are mainly students who are given a free stay in Moscow hotels and paid a few euros a day. Many of them were told that unless they followed instructions, they will fail their exams. On Tuesday night, 5000 of them were all lined up in the square that the protesters were intending to use. They banged loud drums, waved Russian flags and shouted “Russia, Russia”. The opposition protesters, however, soon turned that to their advantage – as the “Nashistis” caught their breath between chanting “Russia, Russia”, the protesters jumped in with “Without Putin, without Putin!”

Around the Nashistis, however, were rows of riot police in full gear. All the nearby squares were blocked off with buses and police trucks. According to the Interior Ministry, 51,000 riot police were brought into the city “to protect the safety of the public”. Ranks of these troops moved down the streets forcing the protestors out of the way, arresting hundreds. Many of the 300 arrested on Monday’s first demonstrations were dragged before the courts on Tuesday and sentenced to up to 15 days. Undoubtedly, this fate awaits more on Wednesday and over the next days.

Significantly, almost all of those on Monday’s legal protest and Tuesday’s unsanctioned demonstration were youth, many of whom were taking part in protests for the first time. There did not appear to be a widespread nationalist mood, indicating that, so far, the far right has not mobilised. Another demonstration with a further 200 arrests took place in St Petersburg and significantly a third protest has been reported in the southern city of Rostov. Supporters of the CWI in Russia participated with newspapers and a special leaflet. The way in which the leaflet was clandestinely distributed, away from the prying eyes of the riot police, added to its popularity, as did the astonishing fact that no-one else had produced any material to distribute.

The fact that the police have arrested a large layer of activists, and given the lack of any clear strategy from those calling the protests, leaves open the question of whether protests will continue and grow. Speakers at yesterday’s meeting, for example, said that this election was only to elect the ‘side kicks’ and now we have to prepare for the main election (the presidential election in early March 2012). In effect they are saying the protests will de-mobilise. But the youth in the crowd were muttering that now is the time to act.

General discontent

Over the past few years, such protests by youth would have attracted a small handful and be seen by the vast majority of the population as being organized by a few ‘marginals’. The difference now is that these protests reflect a general discontent in society that was brought to a head during the election campaign and it is now being added to by the feeling that Putin is no longer invincible. Indeed, today Putin has had to promise that “when” he is re-elected in March, he will re-shuffle the government. On the night of last week’s elections, the main pro-Kremlin TV election programme openly discussed whether the king had proved to have “no clothes after all”.

In the aftermath of the election, Putin and Medvedev have attempted to talk up the result by pointing out that as a result of the global crisis, governments have fallen throughout Europe to be replaced in some places, they said, by unelected governments. If the Russian parliamentary elections had been genuinely democratic, the final result obtained by their United Russia party (49.5%) would be truly remarkable. But this was the most fraudulent election to have been organized, so far, in the new capitalist Russia.

Mevedev (left) and Putin (righ)

The regime felt that they could get away with this by dealing with the international observers beforehand. They put blocks in the way of the OSCE election monitors and on the day before the election detained the head of the pro-US ‘Golos’ monitoring group. The government welcomed, however, observers sent by the CIS and Shanghai Co-operation Council, most of whom came from countries with even less democratic systems. Other international monitors turned up to assure Russians that the elections were indeed free and fair. On an election night analysis, one of these, from Britain, assured the audience he had seen no infringements. This short-sighted gentleman turned out to be Nick Griffin, leader of the far right British National Party!

The scale of fraud is impossible to cover completely in an article this length. A few of the more extreme examples will have to suffice. In the Chechen republic, supposedly 99.5% of the population voted for United Russia on a 99.5% turnout. In the past, the large cities, such as Moscow, would not have experienced large scale fraud but this time there are widespread reports of ballot box stuffing. An exit poll conducted in Moscow indicated that about 30% of Moscovites voted for United Russia but the official result recorded 49%. The practice of the “Carousel” was also common in the city. This saw groups of people paid to travel around polling stations in buses voting at each one. One CWI member was offered 5 euros a day to do such work!

In other areas, it is reported that election observers from opposition parties turned up to the polling stations to find that imposters, usually “Nashists”, had taken their places. In the city of Astrakhan, it appears that the ballot boxes were all taken away to separate buildings guarded by either riot police or plain-clothed “informals”. It is, of course, not known what exactly happened behind closed doors, but the vote for United Russia was unnaturally high.

Despite this, United Russia could not even get enough votes to top the 50% mark. It lost a third of its votes from the previous election. Given that the turnout also dropped to 60%, United Russia only gained the “vote” of 30% of the population. And that is before taking into account the threats, bribes and blackmail used throughout the country to force people to vote for the ruling party. A number of reports claimed that workplace managers demanded that their staff, under threat of losing their jobs, show their completed ballot papers to prove they had voted the right way.

Reality of today’s Russia laid bare

Now the reality of today’s Russia is being laid bare for all to see. Putin, taking power after the disastrous years of the Yeltsin period, was credited by some with putting the country “back on its feet”. He benefited from the oil boom of 2000-2007, before the global crisis hit the country a devastating blow.

Many now see the boom years as a wasted opportunity, with the money frittered away into the pockets of the oligarchs. Then an announcement, without any consultation, that, in effect, Putin was coming back as president for another twelve years, which was seen by many as a recipe for a new Brezhnevite-style stagnation period. Putin’s arrogance led him to believe in his own invincibility. In what may well be seen in hindsight as Putin’s ‘Ceausescu moment’, the prime minister appeared on stage at the end of a wrestling match to congratulate the winner, only to hear whistling break out around him. Since then, his party’s ratings which had already begun to fall speeded their decline. He has been forced to make other concessions, and is likely to continue seeing his polls slip.

The Communist Party came second in the elections, winning about 19.5%. The CP is not a left party which seriously challenges the rule of the oligarchs, but is increasingly a right-wing nationalist party which uses a few populist demands to build its support. It doubled its previous vote with a layer of youth voting for it for the first time. They did so however because they were against the Putin regime and in part because they were attracted by the party’s nationalist rhetoric.

If the protests at the fraudulent election, with the next large one planned for Saturday, gather momentum, Putin’s victory in March’s election could even be in question. Not coincidentally, the “nashists” at last night’s pro-Kremlin rally wore badges declaring, “I love Medvedev”. Perhaps some in the ruling clique are already considering preparing Medvedev, the current president, as a ‘back-up candidate’ should Putin’s candidacy become even more toxic.

The CWI in Russian is participating energetically in the protests. The mainly youthful protesters need to also reach out to and link up with the wider working class and poor, in the workplaces, neighbourhoods and elsewhere. The organized working class is the most powerful potential force for change, using its methods of mass struggle, such as industrial action and the general strike.

To develop the protests also means building a political alternative to the parties of the oligarchs and the various nationalist and populist parties. The CWI stands for the creation of a mass workers’ party to fight for the overthrow of the oligarchs and capitalism and for the democratic, socialist re-organization of society to end the current crisis and to transform the living conditions of the majority.

The CWI calls for an end to police violence and for genuine freedom of assembly, to demonstrate, to hold meetings and to strike. The ‘electoral commissions’ and the Central Commission should be immediately disbanded. We call for the creation of regional, city and federal committees of workers and the poor to organize and oversee free, democratic elections.

All parties should be free to organize and to stand in elections without hindrance, except fascists. The extremely generous financing of the Duma’s pro-capitalist political parties by the state and big business must end. All restrictions on forming political, social and trade union organizations, and their full participation in elections, must cease.

Russians can have no confidence in the result of the parliamentary elections and the Duma. We say, down with the government and for new elections to a democratic constituent assembly, in which all layers of the working class and their allies –the overwhelming majority of society – are represented to decide what forms and government structures are required to best defend their interests.

Socialists call for a majority workers’ government with socialist policies. A workers’ government would end poverty, joblessness, homelessness and low pay and carry out massive funding for decent housing, education and health etc. This entails bringing the country’s vast wealth, including the oil and gas industries, into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management – in stark contrast to the dictatorial bureaucratic rule of Stalinism – so that living standards can be transformed and a genuine socialist Russia would again act as beacon to working people everywhere.

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