Russia’s gentle breeze of change

The protests that have swept Moscow following alleged vote rigging in December’s parliamentary election have made their mark on many people.

Driving through the city that I lived in a few years ago, I was amused to see a poster advertising a summer concert by 1980s rock outfit, the Scorpions.

The Scorpions, I remember, were always turning up in Moscow. They even played at Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday shindig.

Russia must surely be among the last places on Earth where this aging band can still gather an enthusiastic crowd, enough to keep the wrinkly rockers in orange juice and Old Spice.

Their popularity is courtesy of the smash hit Winds of Change, remembered well as the anthem of a generation who said “dosvidanya” to communism and “privet” to a new, democratic Russia.

The wind of change

It’s a stretch to suggest that Russia is on the verge of something similar, but it does feel like the winds of change are blowing again.

OK, let’s call it a mild breeze of change. A hint of something different in the air.

The protests that have swept Moscow following alleged vote rigging in December’s parliamentary election have made their mark on many people here, from traditional liberal thinkers like journalists, students and academics, to more politically opportunistic business owners and professionals.

The people I’ve met are excited. They can speak out more freely, gather freely (for now) and imagine things that only six months ago seemed impossible.

It’s not, however, that they expect to stop Vladimir Putin from winning. And they don’t want a revolution.

What they do want is respect for their rights and freedoms. They want rule of law, and they  want their votes to count.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens on March 4. Will there be accusations of vote rigging again, captured on smart phones and broadcast on YouTube?

‘Protect democracy’

Putin has made much of spending a billion dollars of taxpayer money “to protect democracy” by installing 200,000 webcams in 95,000 polling stations, with online streaming to prevent ballot box stuffing.

The cameras won’t be able to protect against the numbers simply being changed, as is alleged to have happened in the past.

Nor will any number of protections and precautions enable this middle class movement to actually win anything. There are nowhere near enough people behind it to achieve that in a national poll.

But here in Moscow, expect a strong showing for the billionaire challenger Mikhail Prokhorov.

Most of those votes will be going his way, not because people trust him particularly (they don’t) or because he has any experience of governing (he doesn’t). At worst, he’s a convenient spoiler vote and at best, he may, if he’s true to his word, carry their voices into mainstream politics.

At any rate, Prokhorov’s result will give an indication of how big this free-thinking, change-minded, internet-connected crowd really is.

Nationally, they’re a tiny minority, to be sure. But here in Moscow, some put the figure at 30 per cent. And in Putin’s Moscow, that’s a big chunk of opinion.

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