Yesterday's parliamentary elections in Russia were supposed to be a vaguely depressing snooze, like the rest of the country's emulations of democracy since about 2004. Instead, Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, took a beating, pulling in 15 percent fewer votes than the previous election — and that's only the official result, which by all appearances includes staggering amounts of poll fraud. More important, though, the cynicism and apathy of the electorate are all but gone.
Here's what happened. Going into the election, United Russia had the entirety of the so-called "administrative resource" working for it; just like the Communists of yore, it had abandoned all pretense of separation from the governing structures. (Moscow city government, for one example, footed the bill for some of UR's advertising, an act as illegal in Russia as it would be here.) It kept the opposition off the airwaves. It threatened to cut funding for institutions that wouldn't deliver it a block vote. It openly enticed people to the polls with free swag. It couldn't NOT win. And then it went after the democratic process itself.
Days before the election, government-controlled NTV aired a hit job on Russia's sole remaining election-monitoring NGO, Golos (who were accused of working for, wait for it, Sweden). Golos's director was promptly detained. On December 4, ballot boxes were stuffed; monitors shooed away; voter registrations bought, sold, and forged; and teams of UR activists bussed from precinct to precinct to vote early and often, in a process called "The Carousel." When all else failed, United Russia's numbers ballooned for no apparent reason, like in this TV report showing an admirable turnout of 146 percent.
We don't know whether these violations were any worse than in previous elections. What we do know is that this time, more people carried iPhones. Within hours, hundreds of poll-fraud instances were documented, shared on Facebook, and collated into YouTube channels. Outrage grew exponentially. DDoS attacks against Russia's liberal portals such as Echo of Moscow, Slon, and Big City did little to stop the spread of firsthand data. The opposition that couldn't unite around an alternative party found itself monolithically united against the fraud itself. By Monday, Moscow was seeing a level of street protest it hadn't seen since the nineties. At Chistye Prudy, over 5,000 people chanted, "Putin, go away," clashed with the police, and alluded to Tahrir Square. A youth activist website, EpicHero.ru (currently under another DDoS attack), has already dubbed the protesters "The New Decembrists."
It's hard to say what exactly will shake out of this sudden surge of adrenaline. For one thing, it may dawn on Putin's regime that controlling TV while letting the Internet run relatively wild may no longer be enough. For another, there still isn't a satisfying alternative to the ruling party. (Recently, it has even become acceptable in Russia's liberal circles to hold one's nose and vote Communist, on the logic that any competition is better than none.) And United Russia still gets to keep its majority — under Russia's arcane parliamentary rules, the number of seats it will cede won't even be proportionate to its election losses. Still, if the party of Putin could shed 15 percent of its support on protest votes alone, imagine if, by the time the presidential election rolls around in March 2012, the Russians had a candidate they actually liked.