Russia’s opposition will test Vladimir Putin’s grip on power today in nationwide protests that promise to be the largest demonstration of public outrage since the dying days of the Soviet Union.
Widespread reports of fraud in last Sunday’s national parliamentary election have galvanised an opposition long marginalised by repressive policies and by state-run news media that virtually ignored them.
Protests, some attracting thousands, rolled on for three consecutive nights in Moscow and St Petersburg after the election showed unexpectedly fierce anger against the government and prime minister Mr Putin’s ruling United Russia party.
United Russia suffered losses of more than 20% of seats it previously held in the Duma and critics and local election observers say even that result was inflated by fraud.
Smouldering resentment caught fire, largely through social media, and the country expects to see a massive protest rally in Moscow and demonstrations in some 70 other cities today.
“This will be a watershed step in the development our democracy. We expect it to become the biggest political protest in 20 years,” Ilya Ponomarev of the Left Front opposition group said.
There may soon be a symbol to the protests: white ribbons. A group of activists sent up a website urging people to wear them in support of today’s demonstrations. They are not yet visible on Moscow’s streets but some opposition leaders and even TV presenters are wearing them in their lapels.
President Dmitry Medvedev conceded this week that election law may have been broken and Mr Putin suggested “dialogue with the opposition-minded” – breaking from his usual authoritarian image.
The Kremlin has come under strong international pressure, with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton calling the vote unfair and urging an investigation into fraud.
But the statements by Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin mollified no-one in the opposition, which predicts at least 30,000 demonstrators will assemble for the Moscow protest.
If today’s protests are a success, the activists then face the challenge of long-term strategy.
Even though US senator John McCain recently tweeted to Mr Putin that “the Arab Spring is coming to a neighbourhood near you”, things in Russia are not that simple.
The popular uprisings that brought down governments in Georgia in 2003, in Ukraine the next year and in Egypt last spring were all boosted significantly by demonstrators being able to establish round-the-clock presences, notably in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the massive tent camp on Kiev’s main avenue.
Russian police will hardly tolerate anything similar.
In Ukraine and Georgia, police were low-profile, staying on the edges of the protests and keeping their numbers small. That is vastly different from the Russian police’s usual crowd-controlling method of flooding any protest zone with hundreds of helmeted officers who seem to relish violence.
The opposition is also vulnerable to attacks on the websites and social media that have nourished the protests.
This week, an official with Vkontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, reported pressure from the FSB, the KGB’s main successor, to block access to opposition groups, but said his company refused.
On election day, the websites of a main independent radio station and the country’s only independent election-monitoring group fell victim to denial-of-service hacker attacks.
And in a possible attempt at intimidation, a top Interior Ministry official proposed this week that all social media users be required to register their legal names and addresses.
While the Moscow protest is likely to be the most dramatic and visible, the demonstrations planned for the rest of the country can also be a key sign of whether the opposition has the numbers and energy to apply sustained pressure on the government.
In a visit to Prague on Thursday, Mr Medvedev characterised the early protests as a “manifestation of democracy”.