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Russian Protesters Mobilize Via Social Networks, As Key Opposition Leaders Jailed


Prominent anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny (right) arrives for an appeal hearing at a court in Moscow on December 7. Has the Kremlin made him into an opposition icon by arresting him?
MOSCOW -- In the latest sign of the growing role the Internet is playing in bringing a groundswell of public discontent with the Kremlin onto the streets, some 18,000 people have signed up on a Facebook page to attend planned mass nationwide demonstrations on December 10 over alleged election violations.

On Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, 7,000 people have promised to show up.

Those numbers, which were reached in just a few hours, portend an unprecedented public display of anger at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party, which is alleged to have rigged the December 4 parliamentary elections in the Kremlin's favor.

December 7 saw a third night of protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and more arrests by the police. The crowds were smaller than the several-thousand-strong masses who came out on December 5-6, but the persistence of the demonstrators is being seen as remarkable.

The opposition rallies have been dubbed a "Facebook revolution" by one privately owned media outlet, and marking a new era in hitherto monochrome politics by others. Simmering discontent among the young tech-savvy generation shows no sign of abating, despite the jailing of key opposition leaders and beefed-up security in the capital.

Election critics got a boost on December 7 when one of Russia and the former Soviet Union's most recognizable faces, Mikhail Gorbachev, hinted that Russian authorities had been "discredited" and said the country should hold a new vote.

Anger At Vote-Rigging Claims

If anything, the protest movement is growing.

A Facebook page called "Demonstrations For Honest Elections" urges Muscovites to attend a protest on Moscow's Revolution Square.
A Facebook page called "Demonstrations For Honest Elections" urges Muscovites to attend a protest on Moscow's Revolution Square.
Ilya Klishin, a Moscow-based journalist and blogger, listed the "Saturday Revolution Square" opposition protest taking place on December 10 on Facebook after returning on December 6 from this week's second protest, where over 500 people were arrested.

By late on December 7, more than 25,000 people had used social-media sites to indicate that they will attend the rally on December 10. City authorities have denied reports that they will close Revolution Square in an attempt to stop them.

Klishin says that "clearly falsified election results" had propelled Russia's burgeoning Internet out of its apathy and seen it come of age.

"In some districts of Moscow, United Russia took 90 percent. That's obvious falsification -- there's no way that could've happened," Klishin says. "People are worried about this and are personally insulted. Perhaps this was just the last straw before their patience snapped."

In a sign the grassroots protest movement is snowballing online, the protests are being organized in spite of the jailing of key opposition figures such as celebrity blogging activist Aleksei Navalny and Solidarity movement leader Ilya Yashin.

Klishin says he's not affiliated with any political group and simply opposes United Russia, after watching online video clips of alleged electoral violations.

Videos No Laughing Matter

During the polls for the State Duma on December 4, the Russian Internet, used by over 43 million people, was inundated with dozens of videos claiming to capture electoral violations, ranging from "carousel voting" where United Russia supporters were caught voting as many as 40 times, as well as ballot stuffing.

President Dmitry Medvedev has been dismissive of the online election complaints.
President Dmitry Medvedev has been dismissive of the online election complaints.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who has styled himself as a tech-savvy part-time blogger, on December 6 played down the videos. He said: "I've watched some clips, people are putting them up.... You can't see anything going on. They shout 'guards!', 'disgrace!'.... Although of course, we'll have to investigate violations."

But Aleksandr Morozov, a blogger on politics, says these videos have played a role in bringing people from behind their computers onto the streets.

"Social networks have played an enormous role in demonstrating just how the elections took place. If we didn't have social networks, we wouldn't have heard about the sheer quantity of violations," Morozov says. "Thanks to social networks, election observers for the first time were able to speak widely about the violations and disgraces that they saw at polling stations."


And in a sign the authorities are nervous about the Internet's growing sway, websites of numerous independent media, the LiveJournal blogging platform, and the Golos election observer have been periodically inaccessible after being hit by denial-of-service attacks during the election protests.

One of the outlets hit, the Dozhd (Rain) Internet television station, appeared under overt pressure from the authorities after the federal communications watchdog demanded on December 7 that the privately owned station hand over recordings of its coverage of December 5 and 6.

State-friendly national television has meanwhile been conspicuously quiet on the protest movement, offering positive coverage of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who on December 7 officially registered to run in the presidential election in March.

He did so as former Soviet leader Gorbachev was telling Interfax that results of the vote should be annulled and a new round of voting held. "Ignoring public opinion discredits the authorities and destabilizes the situation," the architect of perestroika was quoted as saying.

Stanislav Kucher, a prominent Russian journalist, has now called on journalists at state-owned media outlets to act like "professionals" and report on the arrests and protests taking place. "This is not about politics," he said, "this is about professionalism."

For the first time tonight, Rossia 1, the federal television channel, aired images of the protests on national television.

How many of those Russians protesting online will come out on the streets?
How many of those Russians protesting online will come out on the streets?
Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator for Kommersant FM radio, told Reuters: "For the first time really, the online presence has transformed offline politics.... The whole thing works like a snowball. This is definitely the start of something that will stay in Russian political life."

On December 5, speaking before his arrest at a rally attended by thousands of protesters, many of them students and young professionals, Navalny slammed state-dominated television and urged his followers to make their voices heard.

"They can laugh with their 'zombie boxes' [televisions], they can call us microbloggers and little social-network hamsters," Navalny said. "I am a little social-networking hamster! And I'll gnaw through the throats of these cats! And we'll do this together...because we exist."

On December 7, Navalny told reporters in a Moscow courtroom during a hearing to appeal his 15-day sentence that his trial was a sham.

"In this trial, they don't question the witnesses, they don't accept evidence, they aren't accepting video recordings, audio recordings, photos, and so on," he said. "So it's hard to even call this a [legal] trial."

Observers say that his detention may transform Navalny from a blogging phenomenon into a real political force. Aleksei Venediktov, head of the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, posted a message on Twitter saying that arresting Navalny was "a political mistake, turning him from online leader into offline one."

On December 6, amid the din of drum-beating pro-Kremlin youth groups deployed to drown out opposition cries, a group of opposition protesters chanted, "Free Navalny, free Navalny!"

U.S. officials have repeatedly criticized the vote. On December 7, the U.S. Helsinki Commission added to those voices in a statement that said it was "deeply troubled" by reports of the mistreatment of hundreds of protesters who have been detained for participating in demonstrations against the vote.

The commission called on the Russian government to comply with its commitments to democracy and the rule of law, and to respect the people's right to demonstrate over what it called documented "widespread violations" of election rules.