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Russian Opposition Steps into the Light

By Pavel Khodorkovsky

Vladimir Putin should give the Russian opposition some credit.

Over the last week and a half, hundreds of demonstrations have erupted in Russian cities on the heels of an unabashedly manipulated parliamentary election December 4. But on Thursday, Putin chose to zero in on comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following the vote, saying her comments about an “unfair” election “set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal” to protest.

While it is true that the Russian opposition is buoyed by support from Clinton and leaders of other democratic nations, what we are seeing in Russia is a homegrown movement, led by individuals who have risen to prominence not by falsifying voting results but by creating a vision for the future based on the fair elections and the rule of law.

As you may recall, the party of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, United Russia, claimed 49 percent of the ballots from the Duma vote, down from 64 percent in 2007. Although the disappointment at the party’s slipping ratings could be seen in the grim faces of Medvedev and Putin, the reality is far worse. There is strong evidence coming from the independent observers, including scans of voting station protocols, that puts the real figure around 28 percent.

The 20 percent “bonus” comes courtesy of unparalleled rigging—forget ballot stuffing and misuse of absentee slips. After the ballots are counted and sealed, the protocol containing local polling station results is taken to the district election center by the voting committee chairman. But by the time it reaches its destination, the only real number it contains is the total number of ballots—and not anything resembling the actual tally. That is why Russians are demanding fair elections and a recount of the results.

But fairness and democracy are not values shared by Putin, who has decided that instead of engaging with the opposition, he would rather throw them in jail. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s influential anti-corruption blogger, was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison for disobeying police orders during a recent demonstration. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was also arrested, along with hundreds of other protesters from Moscow to St. Petersburg. (Navalny and Nemtsov are featured in Institute of Modern Russia’s photo exhibit—“Russian Visionaries. Into the Light.”—appearing at the 25CPW Gallery in New York through December 12 and then heads to Europe.)

Nemtsov is one of an increasing number of former government leaders, from Mikhail Kasyanov to Mikhail Gorbachev, who have spoken against the authoritarian policies of the current regime. “The number of people refusing to live in a rotten, stinking regime is growing day by day,” Nemtsov writes for the “Russian Visionaries” exhibit. “Soon they will reach critical mass, and they will not be ignored any longer.”

We have learned in recent days that those fighting for a true democracy in Russia—arguably already a critical mass—will not be intimidated. This past Saturday in Moscow, more than 45,000 people demonstrated against Putin’s corrupt regime and its unfair elections in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. Thousands more demonstrated across 122 cities in Russia and around the world, and more than 400 attended a rally at the Russian Consulate here in New York.

These well-planned, nonviolent actions have no ties, of course, to the State Department or to other foreign actors that Putin has accused of interfering in Russia’s politics.

As a Russian living in the U.S., I take heart when Americans join me in demonstrating on the anniversary of my father’s arrest each year or when they sign petitions supporting proposed legislation that would restrict U.S. visa and banking access for Russian officials with a history of corruption. But this opposition movement is Russian through and through, one that brings concerned voices together to fight for true democracy in a peaceful manner.

As reported in the New York Times, Russian state TV had initially portrayed protesters “as rebels and lawbreakers … arming themselves with improvised bombs,” but organizers understand that free and fair elections do not come about through violence, and exercising their right to assemble peaceably, enshrined in Article 31 of the Russian constitution, is their best method to get their message across. Those in the Kremlin who believe this movement is dangerous or foreign need to look no further than the organizers’ own language to see its tone.

“I do not like Putin,” writes a protest leader on LiveJournal, a social media and blogging site popular in Russia. “But we do not say, ‘Down with Putin as a man,’ we say, ‘Down with the prime minister.’ We do not want to harm him, God forbid.”

But even if Putin stays in power, and even if he and Medvedev fail to make the most basic election reforms, that these demonstrations are happening at all is a milestone.

As my father, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, wrote in an October column for Russian newspaper Vedomosti addressing a new generation of Russians: “Organize yourselves and defend your civil rights, even at the lowest level—city, neighborhood—because these actions are themselves a result.”

In the days since the election, all across Russia citizens young and old have organized themselves to take action—to demand accountability from their leaders and the ability to have their voices heard at the ballot box. And while it was certainly cold at these demonstrations, I’m told you could feel a certain type of spring in the air.

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Pavel Khodorkovsky is the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a billionaire Russian businessman who was arrested in 2003 for fraud. Amnesty International claims he was jailed for political reasons. 

[Photos by Kirill Nikitenko/ Institute of Modern Russia]

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