It didn’t take long after Vladimir Putin’s controversial reelection to the presidency on Sunday for him to turn on the middle class opposition that has sprung up over the past five months.
Clearly last fall’s massive protests against election fraud in parliamentary elections infuriated Putin. So did the fact that – although he won a majority of votes in Russia (the numbers apparently much padded by vote fraud) - he didn’t win a majority in Moscow.
So, on Monday evening here, Putin was eager to remind these upstarts who was in charge.
At the first post-election opposition rally on Monday in Pushkin Square, a fifteen minute walk from the Kremlin, the area was walled off by a solid phalanx of special forces, clubs in hand. They were backed up by trucks standing ready to transport demonstrators to prison.
But this was no collection of street toughs or radicals (unlike the nationalists who were allowed to parade near the Kremlin with no police interference). In the crowd of 15,000, were professionals, business people, and many, many students, who were born after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and wanted a president who would treat them with respect.
My Russian companions said the atmosphere was far more nervous than at the first, huge, opposition demos in December, and the crowd was much smaller.
Medical student Andrey Biloborodno told me, “People don’t trust that something can really change, after all the election falsification.” His friend Katya Isayeva, added, “We want change but it is very hard.” After Putin’s victory on Sunday, she said, “A lot of people gave up.”
And yet, despite their doubts, a crowd came to the square to demand honest elections.
It is hard to convey how astonishing it is to hear young people shouting “Russia yes, Putin No,” in central Moscow, something unimaginable five months ago.
“Five years ago we were afraid,” 17-year-old medical student Anastasia Muryseva, told me, “but now we feel we have a voice. We are against the system. In the past twelve years Putin showed us he’s unable to be fair or uncorrupted.” “This election was so fake,” her friend Anastasia Krimskaya chimed in. “It was a selection, not an election. Young people will keep on protesting.”
No wonder Putin is nervous.
A generation too young to feel the fear that their parents and grandparents absorbed in the womb, is questioning everything that was never meant to be questioned in Russia.
They know they are still a a minority in the country – where an army of bureaucrats, the poor, and residents beyond the large cities fear losing the economic gains that Putin has bought them (with high oil prices). But they live in the capital city from which Putin must govern, and he knows that a majority here want him to go.
So it wasn’t surprising that, as most of the crowd was leaving the square, the special forces moved against the small number who decided to stay on.
When I reached my hosts’ home, my friend Valentina called one of the rally organizers, who abruptly said, “I cannot talk to you now.”
Minutes later we heard on the independent Moscow radio station Echo of Moscow that this man, and most of the rally organizers, had been arrested.
Among them was Alexey Navalny, whom I wrote about in my last blog post.
They were roughly dragged from the stage, dumped in the waiting vans, and taken to jail.
Putin has charged that these young people are agents of the West, being paid to make a revolution. But in fact they are demanding an end to the official corruption that undermines the economy and society.
“He thinks we are paid, because so many of those who support him [at huge rallies] are paid,” said Krimskaya, “but we are here because we care about the country.”
Putin may have the troops to repress this generation in the short term, but these students have time on their side.