The new Russia is different from the old Soviet Union in many ways. It is a society where free enterprise is encouraged and where most individuals lead better and freer lives than they did under the old regime. There are, however, a few sad similarities between old and the new. Corruption is still rampant, and irregularities in the election process remain commonplace despite repeated promises of reform. Growing protests in Moscow and elsewhere about the fairness of Sunday's parliamentary voting attest to the latter.
Protests erupted after many observers, including a U.S. and European Union-sponsored monitoring group, reported thousands of election violations and then posted the places where they occurred on the Internet. Authorities, widely thought to be controlled by Vladimir Putin, shut down the web sites. Word about fraud, however, continued to spread, prompting both domestic outrage and international concern.
Thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest, seemingly emboldened by international criticism of the balloting. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, was blunt in her assessment of Sunday's vote. Tuesday, she called the parliamentary elections rigged.
"Russian voters," she said, "deserve a full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation." There's no sign at the moment they will get it
The official government response to charges of fraud has been international denial and domestic intimidation. Hundreds of protesters were detained on Monday and Tuesday and riot police were dispatched to patrol the streets and to quell demonstrations. The diplomatic response was equally strident. "With regret, we are forced to say that Washington holds onto long-outdated stereotypes and continues to hang labels, not even trying to understand what is really going on in our electoral system," a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
The public ire appears to be directed at Putin, who made it clear on the campaign trail that he expected strong support. That may have worked in a more autocratic society, but newly enfranchised voters rejected his call. Though Putin's party maintained parliamentary control, its majority was reduced sharply. Protesters -- backed by many international observers -- believe Putin and his party would have suffered even more severe losses if ballot boxes had not been stuffed.
In a way, the election in Sunday is a positive step in the democratization of the country. Opposition parties, once forcefully discouraged, flourished, and voters refused to be bullied into voting for the man and party in power. That would not have happened in the old days.
Putin is still the most dominant political figure in Russia and is on track to resume the presidency next year. He's respected for bringing stability to the country during his first stint in office, but election returns indicate that many Russians now worry that his authoritarian ways could erode their new-found freedoms. How Russia resolves current discontent about the election and on-going tensions between the old and new ways of governance will say a great deal about the future political direction of the nation.