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Russia Feature: Putin Accused --- Large Protests on Saturday?

Dec 10th, 2011 at 14:00 Revolution Square. Meeting for open, transparent and truthful elections.

With over 35,000 people pledging to assemble at 2pm in Moscow alone, and similar demonstrations planned in nearly 130 cities across Russia, today looks set to see an escalation of the post-election protests seen earlier in the week. Initial anger at the results --- which saw United Russia keep its parliamentary majority, whilst dropping from 64 to 49 percent of the overall vote --- was triggered by accusations of fraud levelled at Putin and United Russia. Indeed, one exit poll put the total for United Russia as low as 27.5 percent.

Some Russian groups online, coupled with several Western commentators, are labeling this the “White” or “Snow” Revolution. Protesters on Saturday are being encouraged to bring white ribbons, balloons and flowers to the demonstrations. Many online activists have changed their avatars to include a white ribbon symbol.

On Thursday, Putin pointed the finger at America for fomenting the protests, charging Hillary Clinton personally with giving the green light to opposition groups to act. His accusations perhaps act as a response to a growing line in US media linking the protests to the wider movements across the Middle East and North Africa, with commentators noting the centrality of social media. Indeed, John McCain sent him a rather direct tweet on Monday: "Dear Vlad, The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you."

McCain’s words do not simply appear mere provocation. Saturday’s planned assembly in Moscow at Revolution Square, outside the Kremlin, has been compared to the displays of oppositional solidarity seen in Egypt and Bahrain over recent months. The week has seen much organization and action online, with videos, pictures and accounts of protests and of alleged election fraud spread through social media. Google documents was used by the Russian election monitor group Golos to host an open-access spreadsheet which has so far listed over 5000 allegations of vote tampering. Even American magazine site Vice has provided a platform for an individual who claims to have participated in vote tampering.

Several of the videos of suspected electoral rigging went viral, rapidly receiving several hundred thousand hits. This forced President Dmitry Medvedev to comment, downplaying the videos' content, whilst reassuring the population that the election was fair and that any such allegations would be investigated. Even less hard to explain away were the much circulated clips from Russian State Television showing total regional vote tallies far exceeding 100 percent.

Alongside this online organization has come accusations that Putin has been working to suppress such internet dissent. Whilst over 300 people were arrested in the 6000 strong protests in Moscow on Monday, there have been growing reports of clampdowns online. Indeed, one of those arrested was prominent political blogger Alexey Navalny, who is credited with coining the popular phrase and slogan "a party of crooks and thieves" to describe United Russia.

The FSB, the Russian internal security agency, have been accused of trying to shut down websites being used to organise against United Russia. A letter from the FSB to social media website asks for the pages of several anti-United Russia groups to be taken down. Website owner Pavel Durov leaked the letter, in protest at being asked to censor on political grounds. Reports on Friday on twitter suggest that Durov has subsequently been interviewed by police to answer for his intransigence.

In a report for Harvard's Internet and Democracy Blog, Hal Roberts and Bruce Etling make more serious allegations. They write that, "Over the course of the weekend, a seemingly coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack flooded a number of the leading Russian independent media, election monitoring and blogging sites." As a consequence, such sites were rendered inaccessible to Russians before, during and after the vote. Indeed, they note continued reports that popular blogging platform Livejournal --- a key location for political discussion in Russia --- has been unavailable within parts of the country.

On Friday, allegations were made that hundreds, if not thousands, of fake twitter accounts were being created by the state to drown out activist voices. Hashtags, such as #Navalny -- referring to the arrested blogger -- were being used unnecessarily and in excess to frustrate legitimate attempts to use Twitter as a medium of discussion and organisation.

The success of both the attempts at protest mobilisation through social media and the suppression of oppositional organisation remain to be seen. The scale of Saturdays protests and Putin's success in the shifting blame of internal unrest onto outside forces remains to be seen. Equally, the extent to which post-election events -- and the narrative framing them -- are driven by the wish of certain Western factions to see United Russia toppled from power is still an open question. What is certain, however, is that Putins grip on power has been shaken by events this past week and future actions may unsettle his hold still further.

With thanks to V.

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