MOSCOW — The scope of the protests that have followed Russia's Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, which protesters claim were rigged, have not only shocked Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his cohort -- it has shocked the opposition as well. And Kremlin officials have no one to blame but themselves for this swelling protest movement.
The first protests kicked off that Sunday night, following the ballot, with a demonstration of approximately 5,000 to 10,000 people in the central Moscow area of Chistye Prudy. The protest turned ugly when riot police attacked protesters marching toward the Central Electoral Commission building, dispersing demonstrators, sometimes roughly, and detaining people at random. More than 200 of the detained -- including some opposition leaders, journalists, and well-known activists -- were held overnight in crowded cells with no food and no access to lawyers. Administrative trials started the next day, sentencing protesters to 15 days of incarceration, officially for resisting police orders but in fact for merely expressing their discontent with the authorities.
The following days saw more protests against Putin and the ruling United Russia party in Moscow and other large Russian cities. They culminated in a massive rally of over 50,000 people in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10 (and this is a very conservative assessment, as the opposition is claiming approximately 100,000). The protesters were met with a massive police and military presence -- armored personnel carriers on the ground, roaring helicopters in the sky -- which spoke of potential trouble, but the day passed without a single provocative act by the demonstrators nor a single use of force by the police.
The demonstrators wore white ribbons on their coats, and many carried multicolored balloons and flowers, emphasizing the nonviolent and nonpartisan spirit of the protest. Smiling young women pressed white carnations and chrysanthemums on young uniformed servicemen, and some shyly accepted those gifts of peace, giggling like school kids. Democrats, communists, anarchists, radical lefties, and people with no political convictions chanted: "I'm a citizen of my state!" "We want fair elections!" "Our opinion matters!" That evening, state-owned television channels featured short reports about the massive demonstration. They simply had to.
What caused this extraordinary awakening of Russian citizens, who have previously appeared sullenly acquiescent to the erosion of democracy during the Putin era? Russia's Interior Ministry was quick to blame social networks for "threatening the foundations of the society" and "contributing to the rise in extremist views." Putin, predictably, is blaming everything on Western interference, bashing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for supposedly sending a "signal" to the opposition to destabilize Russia. In fact, however, two signature blunders by Putin's own regime served as the trigger for this current round of protests.
First, it all started with President Dmitry Medvedev's revelation on Sept. 24 that Putin would run for the Russian presidency next year, while he would lead United Russia in the parliamentary vote. Putin himself said, "I want to say directly: An agreement over what to do in the future was reached between us several years ago."
Western media and policymakers often explain the lack of pluralism in Russia by pointing to how Russians love Putin's strong rule, his populist machismo. That may be so, but Russians, as the elections this month have shown, have also become increasingly unhappy with more than a decade of so-called "soft" authoritarianism. When Russians heard that what they long suspected was coming true, many felt they had no option but to take to the streets. This frustration alone, though, was probably not enough to convince tens of thousands to gather in Bolotnaya Square for the first time since the stormy 1990s. It was the brazen acknowledgment by the head of government that the decision had actually been made long ago and that the public -- children that they are -- simply hadn't needed to know about it. It was this gross, infantilizing condescension that became the tipping point. The realization that the authorities are not even trying to pretend that public opinion matters, that individual choice matters, that voters have decision-making power, was just too bitter a pill to swallow.
After the parliamentary election results began coming in, the Kremlin made its second painfully obvious mistake. Exit polls for Moscow that showed United Russia's share of the vote at a meager 27 percent miraculously disappeared from the website of the Public Opinion Foundation, a leading polling agency known for its loyalty to the government. While people around the world were watching the protest movement unfold in Moscow, all that Russians could see on federal television were wildlife programs and "nothing's happening" news.
Independent journalists and the public were overwhelmed with disgust. A correspondent of Kommersant FM radio, Stanislav Kucher, addressed Russia's infamously kowtowed broadcast journalists with a stinging rebuke: "Thousands of people are pouring into the streets of both capitals of what's for now our common homeland for the first time in 10 years, to say what they think about the elections. And yet the same television stations that show the president say not a word about the protests -- that's just unprofessional." Kucher added that television people hid "information from millions of people"-- at minimum manipulating their attitude and at maximum disgracing themselves and their profession.
The official information blockade only contributed to the protest mood. More than 35,000 people signed up for the Dec. 10 rally via Facebook, and after the initial hard-line reaction and threats of using brutal force against the protesters, the authorities had to relent. The opposition not only received an official sanction for the demonstration, but the authorities also agreed to provide a "corridor" for those choosing to gather closer to Red Square, so that those protesters could march across the bridge to the other bank of the Moscow River and join the bigger crowd.
So what comes next?
Moscow is no Tahrir, and what's happening in Russia at the moment is not yet a revolution. But Dec. 10 was indeed a historic moment: Thousands of Russians made it clear that they would no longer be ignored. The authorities also realized that hard-line measures and broadcast blockades would only worsen their position and that they must take their critics into account.
The period until the March 4 presidential election is now of paramount importance. Even if Putin does return to the presidency at that time, the powerful voice of discontent played out in the streets and through social media will prove impossible for him to ignore. The era of apathy is officially over.