Even if they are proven correct, however, the awakened political consciousness that this weekend’s protests represent marks a welcome development. While Russians may not be democrats-in-waiting, they are not apolitical. That is almost certainly a consequence of increased Internet penetration. The number of Internet users in Russia has grown dramatically in recent years, surging by over 20 percent in 2009 alone. That growth helps explain the surprising backlash to the elections. While the electoral fraud was not new, it was captured on the Internet like never before. Amateur videos showed officials stuffing ballots, while Facebook pages teemed with reports of repeated voting and other instances of vote rigging. Internet social media like Twitter Facebook and blogs were also critical in stoking popular outrage and fueled this weekend’s rallies. Even the Russian media was forced to take notice of the protests, something that it had never done when its monopoly on news coverage was unchallenged.
The resultant climate of growing dissent that has inspired some prominent government critics to take on Putin directly. Gold mining magnate Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, announced on Monday that he would challenge Putin for the presidency this March. Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister and an outspoken critic of the government’s corruption, has also said he would run. While they are guaranteed to lose, their willingness to participate is significant in itself. After all, the last prominent businessman to challenge Putin, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, found himself in jail on trumped up charges.
Democracy has a long way to go in Russia, but the outpouring of opposition to Putin and the country’s corrupt political system in the aftermath of the latest rigged election suggests that the status quo has changed, even if only marginally. Despite Putin’s best efforts, Russian politics is becoming less predictable.
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