December 9, 2011

The Growing Opposition To Russia's Vladimir Putin

CBC news
written by Daniel Schwartz
Friday December 9, 2011

Russia's flawed parliamentary elections have led to the largest protests in Moscow since Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, fueling speculation that Russia might face its own version of the Arab Spring. Those autocratic regimes confronted unanticipated opposition, and that fact has led Russian observers to wonder who may be the ones to take up the cause against Putin.

The official results of the Dec. 4 elections have Prime Minister Putin's United Russia party as the winners but with far fewer votes than the previous election. At the same time, several opposition parties were not allowed to run, independent monitoring was far from ideal, and several other shortcomings called the outcome into question even before the ballots were counted.

But it was the announced results themselves — like the vote count in troubled Chechnya —that really threw some observers.

Election officials announced United Russia received 99.5 per cent of the votes in Chechnya. But the total number was several thousand more than the number of registered voters in the republic.

After critics pointed out the discrepancy, the electoral commission added to the number of registered voters, so the turnout would at least seem theoretically possible.

Then widespread reports of ballot-box stuffing and other election fraud around the country fuelled the protests. Golos, the only independent election monitor in Russia, received 5,300 reports of election violations.

Although the largest in years, the number of protesters who took to the streets initially was still relatively small, but the authorities cracked down hard, arresting over 300 people, including the head of Golos.

The talk now, though, is that much larger opposition protests are in the works, including one for Dec. 10. And they are being egged on by foreign observers like U.S. Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, who sent a tweet on Dec. 5 addressed to Putin, saying "Dear Vlad, the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you."

For his part, Putin claimed the protesters were acting "in accordance with a well-known scenario," and were doing the bidding of foreign powers, especially the U.S. government.

Still, there are plenty of homegrown opponents to Putin these days, especially to his recently announced bid to have a second run at the presidency in 2012.

The Putin opponent currently getting the most attention is Alexei Navalny. Here a brief look at Navalny and some other leading opposition figures in Russia.

Alexei Navalny
A lawyer, Navalny has been gaining followers through his attacks on corruption in government and business, using the internet as his vehicle.

With a background in commercial law, he began blogging on LiveJournal (ZhivoyZhurnal) in 2008. By the end of that year he had about 1,500 readers. That number is now over 60,000 and on Twitter he has over 137,000 followers (@navalny, in Russian).

Earlier this year, he launched a website, financed by online donations, to investigate and expose corruption in government contracts. The website has a scorecard at the top of its frontpage, which showed 73 complaints filed and 39 substantiated by the Russian anti-monopoly service.

Since February, United Russia has been Navalny's focus. He dubbed it the "the party of crooks and thieves" and the label stuck, going viral during the election campaign.

After the vote, Navalny urged his followers to join the protests against election fraud, using the slogan, "Return the stolen elections."

At the Dec. 5 rally, Navalny told protesters, "We should remember that they are nobody and we are the power. We do not need thieves and crooks!"

He was arrested and charged with disobeying police orders, and is now serving a 15-day prison sentence.

In an interview in April with the Russian weekly magazine, The New Times, editor Yevgeniya Albats called Navalny the "future president" and Navalny responded, "I have heard that joke so many times recently."

Since then, he has turned down an offer from the opposition party, Parnas, to be their presidential candidate, explaining that he is certain the results would be fixed.

Navalny is on the cover of the current edition of the Russian edition of Esquire magazine. "He is the most interesting person in Russian politics," editor Dmitry Golubovsky explained.

In addition to organizing the democratic opposition to Putin, Navalny has also appealed for support from Russian nationalists.

Navalny, 35, is married, with two children.

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