Moscow braces as election protest goes viral

Will Englund – SMH December 11, 2011

ILYA Ponomaryov, a leftist member of Russian parliament, has been visiting police lock-ups in Moscow, asking people detained in last week’s election protests what party or organisation brought them onto the streets.

None, they all told him. I came on my own. I learnt about it on the web.

”The internet has arrived,” he said. ”Facebook has arrived. Vkontakte [a Russian social networking site] has arrived.”

And last night, thanks to the web, organisers were expecting more than 30,000 people to demonstrate against what they see as the rigged results of last Sunday’s elections, because that’s how many have committed themselves to a sign-up sheet on Facebook. No political parties are recruiting protesters. No neighbourhood committees are going around with checklists.

”This is not a political meeting,” Mr Ponomaryov said. ”This is a civil action.”

Last week saw the first spontaneous political protests in Moscow in a long time. With footage captured on mobile phone cameras and posted on YouTube, people saw what they believed to be evidence of ballot-box rigging and took to the streets in anger. If all those 30,000-plus people appear, this weekend’s demonstration would be Russia’s biggest political demonstration since the early 1990s.

Other protests were scheduled in dozens of cities across Russia.

By coincidence, the protests were expected to take place on Human Rights Day. In a statement referring to protests this year in north Africa, Europe and the US, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: ”The message of this unexpected global awakening was carried in the first instance not by … traditional means, although these all played a role, but by the dynamic and irrepressible surge of social media … In 2011, human rights went viral.”

The Moscow gathering was originally planned for Revolution Square, across from the Bolshoi Theatre, and the city permit that was issued limited it to 300 people. But when word went around that the square would be closed for repair work, the outrage flowed through Twitter like a torrent. The city made an offer.

If the demonstrators gathered on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin, the city would raise the permitted number to 30,000. [By that time the Facebook list had already surpassed that figure.]

Anastasia Udaltsova, whose husband is in jail after being detained on his way to a protest last week, said she and other organisers initially opposed the shift but then realised the value of holding such a big protest legally.

The question was how to notify the public. Television wasn’t likely to be much help. By Friday, however, the news was all over the web.

”These have been the most civilised protests in the world,” said Yevgenia Chirikova, another organiser, referring to last week’s demonstrations, ”with no broken windows and no upturned cars. Saturday will be an epochal day in the history of Russia.”

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