Now is the winter of our discontent, well perhaps it is for our friends in Russia. Given the latest spate of arrests in Moscow last night, and the Kremlin’s heavy handed approach towards cracking down and arresting dissenters on Moscow’s Triumphal Square, it may be the case that the “Arab Spring” has turned into a “Russian Winter”.
The heavies the Kremlin mobilised came in the form of thousands of riot police, clad in camouflage and black crash helmets along with hundreds of interior troops. During the course of the night they arrested 250 people who had gathered to protest against the rule of Vladimir Putin (or as I like to call him, Liliputin).
The propaganda machine also swung into action when the Kremlin let loose thousands of pro-Kremlin youth activists, who converged on the square waving huge Russian flags and shouting “Medvedev, victory!” and “Putin, Russia!”.
It was the first time that this Hitler-Youthesque youth group Nashi has been deployed for the purpose it was created – to put down pro-democracy protests similar to those that successfully swept across post-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia in 2004 and 2005.
A veteran liberal opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, and former deputy prime minister, were among those arrested last night too. Meanwhile it was reported that a further 150 people were reportedly arrested during a similar protest in St Petersburg.
Whilst the deployment of riot police and pro-Kremlin propagandists is the typical modus operandi for the Kremlin, it’s true to say that this is also the typical MO for any tinpot dictatorship. And whilst the proletariat across the worlds dictatorships have heretofore been willing to put up with corruption and nepotism, the straw on the proverbial camels back across North Africa was the continued and unabated electioneering fraud. That same stuffing of the ballot boxes has existed in Russia since the early days of Communism and never changed when Russia announced it had grabbed the attributes of democracy with both hands. However, Russian democracy is a bit like Fords Model “T”. You can have any government you want, so long as it’s United Russia!
Of course, Russians are also using the same tools their brothers-in-arms used in Tunisia, Syria and Egypt. They’ve known for decades now that they cannot rely on the traditional news media. So they’ve turned to the internet. Over the past 12 months, hundreds of blogs have sprung up on LiveJournal criticising the government and asking their fellow countrymen and women to stand up to the despotism of Putin and his puppet, Medvedev. Blackberry’s encrypted IM service has also helped significantly, allowing protesters to arrange the “where” and “when”, leaving the FSB in the dark because they cannot hack into encrypted Blackberry messages whizzing through the ether at lightning speed.
Russia’s youth, born in the waning days of the Soviet Union or just after, have expressed dismay at the prospect of his returning to the presidency for two more six-year terms, which would put him in power until 2024. Many protesters said they showed up after hearing about the spontaneous protest via the internet. LiveJournal, Russia’s preferred blogging platform and a key site of discussion in a country dominated by state-controlled media, was inaccessible because of a distributed denial of service attack. Similar attacks crippled liberal media ahead of Sunday’s vote.
My own experiences of late in Russian have been interesting to say the least. The most visible sign of change is the fact that normal people, friends and colleagues, are now no longer to criticise and voice their dissent for the tyrannical tandem that sit in the President and Prime Ministers offices. Before, conversations were limited to whispers and over the shoulder looks over dinner if the topic of politics ever came up. Now the mood is positively palpable. They want everyone to know what they think of the Putin and his puppet and if they can convert a couple of pro-Kremlin scalps in the process, then all the better.
Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy with the Just Russia party, was detained twice and repeatedly manhandled by riot police. “I hope this movement will only grow further,” he said. “We will be victorious.” He refused to recognise the results of the parliamentary vote, which saw his party enter government thanks largely to many protest votes against United Russia.
He also denounced the Kremlin’s harsh crackdown on protests citing, “They are heating things up themselves – if before people thought they could influence things through the parliamentary route, now they’re showing us that this way is impossible. If before people shouted that the government should resign, now they’re shouting that [the government] should sit in jail,”.
Discontent has been growing since Putin announced in September that he planned to run for the presidency in the country’s presidential vote next March. Last month he was publicly booed at a sporting event, revealing the cracks in his image as Russia’s all-popular “national leader”. Although he still remains Russia’s most popular politician, his ratings have plummeted amid decreasing living standards and rampant corruption.
All the riot police in the world won’t stop the people wanting and end to an autocratic dictatorship. It didn’t help Ben Ali in Tunisia, El Baradei in Egypt or Gaddafi in Libya. Given that the Russians are the only allies that Syria has, it may well be that Syria will be the only friend Russia has left too.
Viva la Revolución!