Saturday, 10 December 2011

Russia poll protests and the last days of Soviet rule

Since Russia's parliamentary elections last weekend, thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in Moscow to accuse Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party of rigging.

On 23 August 1989, two million Soviet citizens linked arms and formed a human chain - it stretched 640km (400 miles) from Estonia, through Latvia and into Lithuania.

The Baltic Chain was an astonishing act of defiance to Soviet rule. It was clear the three Baltic republics wanted out of the USSR.

A few days later I arrived in Moscow with a group of British students. As part of our Russian studies, we were going to be spending a year in the USSR.

It was an exhilarating time. Glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) were opening up what had been a tightly closed society, but at the same time the economy was collapsing. We were even given ration cards for buying sugar.

Having seen the Baltic Chain on television, I remember wondering could this be the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union? I soon dismissed the thought.

Everyone I talked to - Russian friends, teachers at the language institute - they all believed that yes, the USSR had its problems, but it was not in danger of disappearing. After all, it was a superpower.

Just two years later, communist hard-liners in Moscow botched their clumsy coup and 500,000 protesters took to the streets of Moscow and the empire collapsed.

I was back in the Russian capital on Christmas Day 1991, as the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin - to mark the official end of the USSR. The largest state on the planet had collapsed like a house of cards.

Putin's Russia is not Soviet Russia, but there is something oddly familiar about what is happening here today. A political system which had considered itself as solid as rock has begun to show cracks.

When Vladimir Putin came to power more than a decade ago, Russia was weak. So on the ruins of 70 years of communism and 10 years of wild capitalism, Mr Putin began to build his system. He called it "the vertical of power".

It was a pyramid - with an all-powerful Putin at the top, and everyone down below following orders.

This, he believed, was what Russia needed to ensure stability. Soon the state was back in control.

The powerful oligarchs had either fled abroad or pledged their loyalty or in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky been put in jail.

The main TV channels had all been brought to heel. And Mr Putin's party, United Russia, had become the dominant force in what was widely seen as a rubber-stamp parliament.

The Kremlin spoke about "managed democracy". Opposition parties could take part in elections, but only those parties which the Kremlin saw as no real threat.

Vocal opponents of Mr Putin were pushed to the fringes, their parties denied registration. Anti-Putin street protests did happen, but they were tiny, and often ended in protesters being arrested. Vladimir Putin seemed in complete control.

Until last weekend's parliamentary elections.

Even in this system of "managed democracy", Mr Putin's party took a drubbing at the polls - officially it lost more than 70 seats. And that amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging across the country.

Online the blogopshere was bursting with talk of election fraud, from ballot-box stuffing to so-called "carousel voting" - people being driven from polling station to polling station to vote several times for the party of power.

There has been a surge of public anger - and the internet has been instrumental in channelling that and bringing protesters onto the streets.

Moscow this week has seen some of the largest anti-government demonstrations in years - a strange mixture of Russian nationalists and liberals calling for the election results to be annulled and for a fresh ballot.

At one protest on Tuesday I spoke to a student called Maria. Along with the crowd she was chanting "Russia without Putin".

It was the first time Maria had ever come out to protest against the countries' leader. "I'm tired of our government," Maria told me. "I'm tired of Putin. I want change."

Which is why this week I keep thinking about the Baltic Chain. And about what happened to the Soviet Union.

And I have been asking myself the same question I asked more than 20 years ago. Under pressure from the people, could the current system fall apart? How strong really is the vertical of power?

It may not be as strong as its architect would like to think.

This week I went along to a pro-Putin rally near Red Square. It came across as unspontaneous and unconvincing.

One of the crowd, a teenager called Sergei, said he and his friends had been bussed in specially from Samara - more than 800km (500 miles) away.

"But no one has told me anything,' Sergei admitted. "I've got no idea why I'm here.'

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