Under pressure

Russia’s prime minister Vladimir Putin is under immense public pressure to step down in the wake of a seriously disputed general election. Putin’s party, United Russia, won elections to parliament earlier this month. His party won just under 50 per cent of the vote, down sharply from 64 per cent in the 2007 election. His political opponents and a large section of the public have accused his government of rigging the election in United Russia’s favour.

Mass public rallies – these have been described as among the largest ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union two decades ago -- have rocked Russian cities over the past few weeks demanding Putin’s exit and a re-election. But Putin is standing his ground. Last week president Dmitry Medvedev offered electoral reforms. But these have failed to cut ice with angry Russians. Only a few months ago, Putin’s victory in upcoming presidential elections seemed inevitable. The anti-Putin protests sweeping through Russia now suggest that Putin cannot take his return to the Kremlin for granted.

Those demanding Putin’s resignation will have drawn inspiration from the Arab Spring protests. But there are warnings coming from Egypt that they will need to heed. People’s power might be successful in removing authoritarian leaders but it results in immense political and economic instability. This is a scenario that many Russians would like to avoid. Putin’s supporters are already reminding them of the terrible upheaval they suffered for over a decade following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and how it was Putin’s leadership that put the country back on track. A concerted campaign is on to remind Russians that without Putin Russia will return to the chaos of the Yeltsin years. Whether Russians will buy that argument remains to be seen.

So far the protests have been peaceful and rather orderly. There is a danger of rifts emerging and this could see the anti-Putin movement implode. This is the scenario that the government will be hoping for and working towards. It will seek to incite violence in order to justify use of force against the protestors. This could result in street-fighting of the kind witnessed in the early 1990s. The current face-off between Putin and the public benefits no one but Russia’s rivals abroad. Putin must get off his high horse and meet the people’s demands half-way.

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