Russia's tainted parliamentary elections still produced a welcome result over the weekend as tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest the outright vote-rigging that kept Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in power. The protesters were peaceful, and the authorities were remarkably tolerant. But the demonstrations expose a serious groundswell of discontent with Putin and the twisted brand of democracy he foists on the Russian people. The Obama administration should continue to speak out against this machine and for those in Russia brave enough to promote genuine democratic reform.
The protests Saturday took place in some 60 cities, including a massive rally is Moscow that drew an estimated 40,000. While the demonstrators called for new and fair parliamentary elections, the underlying complaint was about Putin's intention to return to the presidency in the March election next year. Russians had long taken for granted that Putin was the power behind the scenes under current President Dmitry Medvedev, but that cynical view turned to alarm earlier this year after Medvedev announced he would step down to allow Putin to return to office. The move made a mockery of Russia's fumbling experiment with democracy and all but doomed Russians to what could become a quarter-century under a single, autocratic leader.
The ballot stuffing and other instances of fraud that Putin's party employed were egregious even by Russian standards. While Medvedev promised an investigation, he also said the Duma, parliament's lower house, would be seated and begin work immediately. Putin's spokesman all but ruled out any recount or new elections. And it's clear why. Even after rigging the election, United Russia barely retained a narrow legislative majority. A counterprotest in support of Putin on Monday drew only a fraction of those who turned out over the weekend against the governing party — and many who showed at Putin's rally said they were compelled to or paid to show up. The government is showing no signs of softening, and the public anger is showing no signs of letting up. Two senior editors of a leading Russian news magazine were fired Tuesday in what critics said was payback for having mocked Putin in a published photograph.
The protests have significance beyond their numbers, because most of those demanding change are urban professionals who have a stake in a stable political environment. Putin is still the pre-eminent political figure in Russia and the United States has practical reasons — chief among them the fight against global terrorism — to maintain a working relationship with him. But the administration also needs to think about Russia after Putin — and more seriously, as the protests make clear, about Russia under a weakened Putin presidency. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has set the right tone by acknowledging America's strategic relationship with Russia but calling out Putin for subverting the vote. This is plain talk Moscow needs to hear.