With all the protests taking place in the streets of the United States, Venezuela and Catalonia it’s easy to miss some of the others which don’t get quite as much air time. In the streets of Moscow and other cities across Russia, protest fever is catching on once again and dissatisfied citizens decided to celebrate Vladimir Putin’s birthday by sending a message: It’s time for you to retire. (Associated Press)
Russian police violently broke up a rally in Saint Petersburg as thousands took to the streets across Russia Saturday on President Vladimir Putin’s 65th birthday, urging him to quit power.
Heeding the call of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny to demand competitive elections, around 3,000 people rallied in Russia’s second city and Putin’s hometown while more than a thousand demonstrated in the centre of Moscow, AFP reporters said. Protests were held in around 80 cities throughout the country.
More than 270 people were detained nationwide, more than 60 of them in Saint Petersburg, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors politically motivated arrests.
What the people are protesting is government corruption and a lack of fair elections. (The Russians actually do hold elections, but the accuracy of the results is looked upon skeptically at best and voter intimidation is rampant.) They also seem to have found something of a hero in the person of Alexei Navalny. He was the leader of much larger protests this spring where marchers in the streets numbered in the tens of thousands. Unfortunately for his followers, Navalny is currently cooling his heels in jail.
Is this a sign of things to come and an indication that Putin’s days are numbered? While that might be nice to think, history indicates otherwise. The so-called “Snow Revolution” of 2011 through 2013 saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in cities around the nation. Their complaints at that time were basically the same… rigged elections and massive government corruption. The Russian police and military responded ruthlessly when they needed to. Thousands were arrested and a similar numbers hospitalized.
We should also remember that Putin himself has a bit of a history when it comes to “negotiating” with his critics.
- Denis Voronenkov, a sharp critic of Putin’s corruption: Shot dead in Kiev, March 2017. Much like the OJ Simpson case, the real killers have yet to be found.
- Boris Nemtsov, former Deputy Prime Minister and reform candidate: Shot four times in the back in front of the Kremlin, February 2015. Another unsolved mystery.
- Boris Berezovsky, a former friend of Putin’s who had a falling out and went into exile in Great Britain: Mysteriously “committed suicide” in his own home in 2013.
- Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer and prominent Putin critic: Also shot to death near the Kremlin (along with a journalist who tried to render first aid to him). Sadly, nobody saw anything and the killers remain at large.
- Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was investigating claims of massive government fraud: Regrettably died in police custody under “mysterious circumstances” in 2009.
The list goes on. It’s difficult to maintain a populist movement without leaders who the people can flock around. And in Russia, being one of those leaders frequently results in severe medical complication of a terminal nature. Plus, for any dirty work that Putin may want to get done, he has plenty of resources to call on. Putin’s personal wealth is estimated to be anywhere from $200B to as much as a trillion dollars. You can buy a lot of friends in low places with that kind of cash.
These protests, at least thus far, are significantly smaller than the ones we saw in March and June of this year. Moscow is knocking some heads to make their point, but for the most part they’re ignoring them. The popular leader of the protesters is behind bars, and if the examples I provided above teach us anything, his prospects of leaving jail upright and above room temperature aren’t exactly a sure thing. So I’m sorry to be a real downer here, folks, but if you’re waiting for these protests to drive Putin from office and herald the dawn of a new era of open, democratic government in Russia… well, you might be waiting a while.