Brave new world: Russian president faces Facebook backlash after pledge to probe election fraud

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

Responding to the largest protests Russia has seen in two decades, Russia's social-networking president Dmitry Medvedev took to Facebook on Sunday to announce a new public inquiry into the country's disputed parliamentary elections. Critics of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling party allege that it engaged in widespread voter fraud to win a parliamentary majority in the recent balloting.

But if Medvedev was hoping to quell public outrage via his rather cursory Facebook announcement, the tactic appears to have backfired.  The posting has so far drawn more than 12,000 comments deriding the fraud investigation as grossly insufficient--and insulting the leader himself for good measure.

Under the Constitution, Russian people have the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, "and a right to express to express their position as they did yesterday," Medvedev said on his Russian-language Facebook Sunday. "I do not agree with the slogans or statements made at the rallies. Nevertheless, I have been instructed to check all the messages with polling stations regarding compliance with elections laws."

"Pathetic! What is our President Medvedev ... going to do about the fact that elections must be clean!!!" one respondent, Andrey Naumenko, wrote in comments on Medvedev's Facebook page, per our translation.

"Leaders who do not respect their people are doomed to fail. Why do you need a repeat of this lesson?  . . . you should have studied your history lessons in school, Dmitry Anatolievich," another commenter, Galina Mozharina, chastised Medvedev (and underlining her disciplinary message by using his patronymic).

Tens of thousands of protesters--some with the phrase nyet golosa ("no voice/no vote")  taped over their mouths--have demanded a rerun of the December 4th balloting, claiming that the announced results delivering a majority to Putin's United Russia party are fraudulent.

Putin, a former KGB officer and currently Russia's prime minister, previously served as Russia's president for eight years. (He became prime minister because the Russian constitution does not permit him to serve more than two concurrent terms.) Putin recently announced his intention to run in presidential elections this spring. In addition to denouncing the parliamentary election returns, Russians are also protesting Putin's  presumption that he can return to his former job after a cooling-off period as prime minister.

And in another sign of Russia's new media experience, Russian state media have covered the anti-government protests--with one notable exception.

"State television and other channels broadcast footage of Saturday's big protest in Moscow, attended by tens of thousands, breaking a policy of showing almost no negative coverage of the authorities," MSNBC reported. "However, the reports included no criticism of Putin."

The next big opposition rally is scheduled for December 24, when one of the protest leaders, Alexei Navalny, "will have served a 15-day jail term received for his role in a protest last week," MSNBC reported. A pro-Putin demonstration, meantime, is expected to turn out Monday.

Analysts are skeptical the protests will lead to a full-blown "Russian spring" akin to the pro-democracy protests that have lately convulsed regimes in the Arab world--in part because that is not what Russians on the streets seem to want.

"Our friends in Russia are very excited --but I think ultimately the protests will be quelled and things will quiet down again," one Washington, DC-based Russia observer who requested anonymity to more freely share her views told Yahoo News Sunday. "I think the reaction to the election is less about revolution--nobody wants to overthrow the government--and more a reminder to the government not to take people entirely for granted."

"I guess people just got fed up," she continued. "I think Putin can mollify the masses if he makes some concessions and offers some goodies, but he's been reminded that he's not entirely unaccountable."

Sill, some high-profile Putin allies are showing weakening resolve in the face of the protests. On Monday, the governor of Russia's Vologda province, Vyacheslav Pozgalev, announced his resignation, saying "it was impossible to govern with the new level of public distrust," MSNBC reported.

And in this brave new world, Pozgalev--a fellow member of Putin's United Russia party--took to Twitter to explain his decision.

"I have submitted my resignation letter to the president," he wrote on his Twitter account, per MSNBC/RIA news agency's translation. "I consider it impossible to run the region with such a level of distrust."

Meantime, Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire industrialist and part owner of the New Jersey Jets, announced on Monday his plans to challenge Putin in the March presidential polls.

"I made a decision, probably the most serious decision in my life: I am going to the presidential election," Prokhorov said at a news conference Monday, the New York Times' Ellen Barry and David Herszenhorn reported. "You may remember, the Kremlin removed me and my allies...and we were not allowed to do what we wanted. It is not in my nature to stop halfway. So for the last two and a half months we sat and worked, very calmly and quietly, and we created all the infrastructure to collect two million signatures."

Medvedev--Putin's previously handpicked designated successor/placeholder in the Russian presidency--has employed social media to happier effect in the past. Last April, a YouTube video of Medvedev dancing with friends to the 1990s Russian pop hit "American Boy" became an instant viral sensation.

"We're rocking out last year at a reunion with my (university) class," Medvedev explained on his Twitter feed. "The dances/music are those, from the past," he wrote, punctuating his message with smiley-face emoticons.

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