Russia is electing a new president. The winner is already clear: The polls show that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is impossible to beat. But a strengthened civil society is questioning his claim to power.
What many people in Russia could not imagine until recently is now a reality. For the past three months, tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate for fair elections and more democracy. There are also protests in other cities. Experts and politicians say Russian civil society, which seemed to be asleep for more than a decade, has now woken up again.
Spirits summoned by Putin
The man who did the waking is Vladimir Putin. The Russian prime minister, who already served as president from 2000-2008, is again running as a candidate in the elections on Sunday. The manner in which he announced his return to the Kremlin outraged many Russians, says Natalia Taubina, director of NGO Public Verdict and member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Putin and current President Dmitry Medvedev admitted for the first time in September last year what everyone had long suspected: that they had long ago agreed on a job exchange. Putin would return to the Kremlin and Medvedev would become prime minister.
"The straw that broke the camel's back was the unprecedented falsification of the parliamentary election in December. Ordinary citizens who took part as volunteer election observers saw this fraud with their own eyes," Taubina said.
This was crucial for today's protest movement: "Above all, society demands respect." In concrete terms, that means free and fair elections, simple rules of registration for political parties and the release of those considered political prisoners. Reform-minded Russians criticize the undemocratic course of the country and speak of the "Putin system." They want to change this peacefully, Taubina said.
The middle class shows its colors
The protests in Russia are driven primarily by the new middle class. "In Russia today there is a mass protest of the middle class, affluent people who demand that they and their constitutional rights, including the right to free and fair elections, are respected," Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister and one of the opposition leaders, said.
"It is clear - at least in the big cities among the young, highly qualified, educated people - that there is an understanding that there should be a new political situation," said Petra Stykow, Eastern Europe expert at the Munich University. The unofficial social contract, that the Russian population would prefer political stability and economic prosperity to democratic freedoms, is no longer accepted by a part of the population. But it is not yet possible to say this is the birth of a new civil society, she said, because in rural areas the protest movement is not as strong.
A new sense of community
There have been three large and several smaller demonstrations in Moscow since early December. Neither the bitter cold nor fear of possible reprisals stopped the people from taking to the streets. One of the symbols of the protests is the color white, which is meant to represent purity. Nikolai Petrov, policy expert at the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow, assessed the situation: "There have been two important developments: first, they demonstrated unity and success, and second, they succeeded in bringing together different ideological groups."
The protests would hardly have been possible to this extent without the Internet, Petra Stykow said: "It means the old protesters' problems can be solved: what to do and where and when to do it."
From the very beginning, the protests were organized in Moscow via Facebook and other social networks. "The new means of communication shows you that you are not alone," Stykow said.
Whom to vote for?
Political tension in Russia has reached a new peak with the presidential election. Yet it seems Putin shouldn't have to worry about winning in the first round of voting. According to polls, more than half of Russians intend to vote for the prime minister.
The opposition accuses Putin of having shut out potentially dangerous political opponents before the election began. How should we respond? Should we vote? If so, for whom? The leaders of the protest movement have no clear answers to these questions. They have not endorsed a candidate. "The opposition movement is not yet ripe for actions that show solidarity," writer Boris Akunin said in his blog.
However, the protesters have agreed to observe the presidential election especially closely and to document possible fraud. If the violations are serious, the League of Voters, a new association of civil society activists, could put Putin's legitimacy into question, Akunin told DW.
Putin would obviously prefer to avoid such a scenario. At first, he laughed at the protesters. But now he is sending signals of rapprochement and has even praised Russia's civil society. It had become more mature, active and responsible, the prime minister and presidential candidate wrote in an article in the Moscow newspaper Kommersant. The state must renew its democratic mechanisms so that the middle class can better take part in it, he wrote.
Author: Roman Goncharenko / sb
Editor: Joanna Impey