Russia: “Putin is a thief! Putin is a thief!”

100,000 protest in Moscow and 100 cities over rigged elections

If, even a month ago, someone had suggested that nearly 100,000 people would flood a Moscow square chanting “Putin is a thief! Putin is a thief! “, there would have been, to say the least, certain skepticism amongst most people. And yet the anger of an increasingly large part of the population at the fact that the ruling regime had to falsify recent parliamentary elections is now starting to threaten the very existence of the Putin regime itself.

The regime did everything it could to prevent people turning out for last Saturday’s demonstration. Earlier last week, protests in Moscow and St Petersburg against the rigged elections were brutally broken up. Over a thousand people were arrested and sentenced to up to 15 days in prison. The state-controlled media, and that includes almost all the TV and radio channels, completely ignored the protests. And last Saturday’s demonstrations grew nearer, the regime started to use threats and scare tactics against protesters. The Minister in charge of the police explained that, as far as he was concerned, the only difference between breaking up a protest of 5 and 50,000 is the amount of anti-riot equipment needed. Throughout the week, reports of troops being brought into Moscow were used to try and scare people away from the planned protests. Last Friday, when it was already clear the protests would be massive, it was announced that students in the three senior classes in schools and the colleges would have to attend an extra day of school on Saturday – lasting till 8 pm! On the same day, the medical doctor who heads the country’s work against infectious diseases warned that people should not go on the demonstration because of the threat of a flu epidemic!

But none of this worked. What started just a month ago as heckles from spectators directed against Prime Minister Putin in a sports’ stadium has now snowballed into a mass opposition movement. Last Saturday, Bolotnaya Square, which is within site of the Kremlin, was filled to overflowing with protesters. People lined the streets surrounding it. So many people crowded onto a bridge that at one stage police warned them to leave the bridge or it may collapse. It was announced from the platform that even the police estimated, at one stage, there were more than 100,000 protesters in the square. That figure is probably not far from the truth. Once in the Square, demonstrators had to remain for 4 hours as it was almost impossible to move.

Throughout Russia, there were similar protests. Up to 10,000 protested in St Petersburg and significant demonstrations of hundreds and often thousands took place in up to 100 other cities. In temperatures of 15 degrees below zero, 4,000 people participated in the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk. Hundreds also participated in protests outside Russian embassies in European capitals.

‘Putin and Medevdev must go!’

Overwhelmingly, they protested at the blatant rigging of the parliamentary elections. When the crowds chanted, “Putin is a thief!” they referred to stolen votes. Supporters of all the minor parties, who were blocked from participating in the election, held party flags at the front of the crowd, but none of the banners presented any demands. The demands were generated from below. When the first platform speaker called for a recount of the votes, the crowd started chanting “new elections!” Significantly, there was not a significant turnout at the protests from the three official ‘opposition’ parties, which all had expressed their satisfaction with the votes they received.

A few members of the Communist Party attended with a banner. “Committee of branch secretaries of the Communist Party” was the riveting slogan! In contrast, protesters chanted “Putin should go!”, “Medvedev should go!”, “Churov should go!” (Churov is the Head of Electoral Commission).

The Communist Party officially came second in the elections, doubling its previous vote. But the CP is not a left party which seriously challenges the rule of the oligarchs. Increasingly, it is a right-wing nationalist party which uses a few populist demands to build its support.

Participants came along to Saturday’s demonstration with their home-made placards, which were often biting and humorous. One placard read, “According to an opinion poll, 146% of Muscovites think the election was fixed” (On election night, total party votes in one city reached 146%!). Another placard read, “I don’t believe United Russia – I trust Guass” (Gauss was a scientist-statistician whose method, when applied to the election results, clearly demonstrate massive fraud). Perhaps the most popular slogan was, “Down with crooks and thieves!” – which is the popular nick-name for Putin’s party, United Russia.

Saturday’s platform speakers were supposed to representative of all of the political opposition. However, out of 20 or so speakers, about 15 represented parties of the neo-liberal opposition, who, even if the elections had been fair, would probably not have gained more than 10% of the vote between them. The two representatives of the ‘Left’ that did speak (one of whom is a deputy for the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party) just repeated general abstractions. Ironically, it was the neo-liberal Ella Panfilova, a former minister and human rights’ activist, who was the only speaker who called Putin a thief, not just for stealing votes, but also for attacking wages and funding for health and education. She received a warm response. When any of the neo-liberal Duma representatives spoke, including a representative of the Communist Party, the crowds chanted, “Give up your mandate!” (referring to their Duma seats won in the rigged elections) and often drowned out the speaker. This indicates mistrust and cynicism towards all the parties. It was summed up by a placard that read, “I didn’t vote for these bastards – I voted for the other bastards!”

The general mood during Moscow’s mass protest was one of scepticism towards all politicians, although there was no clear political trend expressed by the protesters other than support for basic democratic rights. When former Prime Minister Kasyanov spoke a ripple of discontent spread through the crowd. The platform disgracefully not only justified working with the far right, but even invited one of the leaders of the extreme right ‘Russian March’ to speak. He called for a “Russian revolution” and for “Russian elections”. He was met with a cool response from the crowd, which began to chant “No revolution, no revolution!” in response to the demagogy of the far right. This led the Chair of the platform to, once again, explain the “need to work with the Russian March” and to remark “many of whose participants are with us today”.

Far right

Those members of the far right who did take part in the protests were not so tolerant. Considering the homophobic nature of much of Russian society, a group of LGBT activists courageously brought their own placards and a rainbow flag. They stood near the CWI contingent, as the CWI in Russia is the only Left organization to openly speak out on the question of LGBT rights. Repeatedly during the march, far-right thugs kept attacking the LGBT contingent, trying to tear away their placards and to take their flag. CWI members and LGBT activists had to form an informal cordon around the activists to prevent the attacks. Significantly, when another thug attempted a provocation and was forced back by the cordon, he was seized and forcibly made to stop his attacks by the crowd.

Unfortunately the protesters taking part in last Saturday’s tremendous show of anger against the regime were sent home at the end of the day with no proposals on how to develop the protests. The platform announced that there would be another (even bigger) demonstration in two week’s time, on 24 December. Although Christmas is not an official holiday in Russia, it is still just a few days before the main New Year celebrations. Until then, the platform announced there would be other protests – organised mainly by the various neo-liberal parties – and again, scandalously, the platform speakers listed a far right demonstration in central Moscow last Sunday as part of the ‘general movement’. Clearly the platform speakers hope that before organising another general protest, they can capitalize on the current mood in society with their own party-orientated events. It also seems they think they can squeeze concessions from the regime in the run-up to next March’s presidential elections, in which Putin aims to win. But when the platform speakers tried to formulate this position, they met with chants of “New Year without Putin!”

Dozens of CWI supporters participated in the Moscow demonstrations. We held banners with slogans calling for new free elections, the sacking of the electoral Commission and for the elections to take place under the control of elected commissions of workers and residents from each area. Our slogans also included the call for the establishment of a workers’ party to represent the interests of the vast majority in society, offering a socialist alternative.

Practically no party or organization present on the demonstration distributed leaflets (except the far right) or sold newspapers, except the CWI in Russia, which distributed thousands of leaflets and sold all its newspapers. During the protests, we also updated our website with reports of the protests from all over Russia. These reports were read by tens of thousands.

Ruling elite licking its wounds

After last weekend’s mass protests, the ruling elite in Russia are licking their wounds. Despite their saber-rattling rhetoric and threats before the protests, the police were remarkably restrained given the appalling record of the Russian state. Officially about 100 people were arrested last Saturday, mainly in the Far East, and with no official arrests in Moscow. The regime probably estimated that if they resorted to general, brutal repression, the whole street movement could explode out of control. It seems now they have decided to rely on the neo-liberal opposition leaders to deflate and mislead the mass movement. In an attempt to try to defuse growing popular anger over the parliamentary elections, President Medvedev announced on 11 December an ‘investigation’ of allegations of election rigging. Only the events of the next few days and weeks will show whether the regime can succeed or not.

For the street demonstrations to develop, requires the mainly youthful, urban middle class protesters to link up with the wider working class and poor, in the workplaces, neighbourhoods and elsewhere. Workers are also disgusted with the blatant election rigging and also face a rising cost of living and falling living standards. The organized working class is essential to bringing about real political and social transformation. It is the most powerful potential force for change, using its methods of mass struggle, such as industrial action and the general strike.

Building a mass movement to seriously challenge the Putin regime requires struggling for a political alternative to the parties of the oligarchs, as well as the nationalist and populist parties, and the false ‘opposition leadership’ of the pro-market (neo)‘liberal’ 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.

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December 2011