On Monday night, 24 hours after the polls closed in Russia's parliamentary elections and United Russia claimed victory with 49 percent of the vote, some 6,000 young Russians stood out in the cold rain in the park at Chistye Prudy voicing their dissatisfaction. "Putin is a thief!" and "Russia without United Russia!" they shouted, teasing the once-and-future president by calling him Mr. Botox.
When they started to march and the riot police attacked, they didn't budge. They yelled "This is our city!" and "Shame on you!" and appealed to the police as fellow citizens. "Are you ashamed when you go home and take off that uniform?" one protester asked a helmeted cop. It was an exceptional sight in a city that rarely sees more than a few hundred elderly protestors at opposition rallies. Today, despite the controversy over the elections and rumors swirling about those detained last night and more protests later in the evening, the feeling of euphoria in Moscow is unmistakable, uplifting, and addictive.
But, even if this is the beginning of something big and civic and beautiful -- a "Russian Tahrir" as one of the speakers at last night's rally predicted -- it's still very much the beginning, and still very much a big "if." The opposition -- a disorganized group of small organizations and unaffiliated well-wishers -- will have an uphill battle to fight its way to power, or to get United Russia to concede an inch of ground. And this despite a rather embarrassing showing at the polls.
As the parliamentary vote approached, United Russia was slipping in public opinion polls and was being booed at public events. In May, one third of Russians polled agreed with the Internet meme created by blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny that it was "the party of crooks and thieves." By Sunday, election day, the figure had to be still higher. The Kremlin began to lash out, attacking the one independent election monitor in Russia, shuttering media sites popular with the young liberal intelligentsia, as well as LiveJournal, Russia's main blogging platform with 13 million users.
On Sunday, when Russians went to the polls, reports of widespread fraud abounded. Lenta.ru's Ilya Azar reported on how he participated in a "carousel," a Russian electoral innovation wherein voters are bused around to various polling stations, voting for United Russia at each stop. I observed the ballot count in Yasenevo, in Moscow's southwest, where suspiciously neat stacks of ballots -- all for United Russia -- appeared whenever a ballot box was cracked open and its contents counted. Of the voters I spoke to, many had come out for the first time in a decade just to cast a ballot in protest against United Russia's monopoly on the political process. Of those that voted for them (and, to be fair, there were quite a few genuine, staunch supporters of Putin and United Russia) I met one young man who had asked the officials registering him to vote if they had any suggestions. "They told me, ‘If you vote for United Russia, you'll have a surprise waiting for you,'" he explained outside the polling station near my apartment. When he got into the booth, there was a black plastic bag waiting for him. Inside was a bottle of vodka and some plastic cups.
And yet, despite all this, despite the impossible numbers in places like Chechnya -- 99.5 percent voter turnout, 99.48 percent of whom voted for United Russia -- the ruling party couldn't even get 50 percent of the vote. By Monday morning, with most of the votes counted, United Russia's share of the Duma stood at 49.5 percent. (Last time there was a parliamentary election, in 2007, United Russia got 64.3 percent.) The percentages of the so-called systemic opposition -- the Communists, the nationalist LDPR, and the left-leaning Just Russia -- for whom people were voting mostly in protest, doubled. In many regions, United Russia's share of the vote hovered around one-third.