Russia's flawed parliamentary elections have led to the largest protests in Moscow since Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, fueling speculation that Russia might face its own version of the Arab Spring. Those autocratic regimes confronted unanticipated opposition, and that fact has led Russian observers to wonder who may be the ones to take up the cause against Putin.
The official results of the Dec. 4 elections have Prime Minister Putin's United Russia party as the winners but with far fewer votes than the previous election. At the same time, several opposition parties were not allowed to run, independent monitoring was far from ideal, and several other shortcomings called the outcome into question even before the ballots were counted.
But it was the announced results themselves — like the vote count in troubled Chechnya —that really threw some observers.
Election officials announced United Russia received 99.5 per cent of the votes in Chechnya. But the total number was several thousand more than the number of registered voters in the republic.
After critics pointed out the discrepancy, the electoral commission added to the number of registered voters, so the turnout would at least seem theoretically possible.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on Dec. 8, accused the U.S. of encouraging protests over Russia's parliamentary election. Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/ReutersThen widespread reports of ballot-box stuffing and other election fraud around the country fuelled the protests. Golos, the only independent election monitor in Russia, received 5,300 reports of election violations.
Although the largest in years, the number of protesters who took to the streets initially was still relatively small, but the authorities cracked down hard, arresting over 300 people, including the head of Golos.
The talk now, though, is that much larger opposition protests are in the works, including one for Dec. 10. And they are being egged on by foreign observers like U.S. Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, who sent a tweet on Dec. 5 addressed to Putin, saying "Dear Vlad, the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you."
For his part, Putin claimed the protesters were acting "in accordance with a well-known scenario," and were doing the bidding of foreign powers, especially the U.S. government.
Still, there are plenty of homegrown opponents to Putin these days, especially to his recently announced bid to have a second run at the presidency in 2012.
The Putin opponent currently getting the most attention is Alexei Navalny. Here's a brief look at Navalny and some other leading opposition figures in Russia.
A lawyer, Navalny has been gaining followers through his attacks on corruption in government and business, using the internet as his vehicle.
With a background in commercial law, he began blogging on LiveJournal (ZhivoyZhurnal) in 2008. By the end of that year he had about 1,500 readers. That number is now over 60,000 and on Twitter he has over 137,000 followers (@navalny, in Russian).
Alexei Navalny speaks to protesters in Moscow Dec. 5. 'We should remember that they are nobody and we are the power,' Navalny told them. He is now serving a 15-day prison sentence. Anton Golubev/ReutersEarlier this year, he launched a website, financed by online donations, to investigate and expose corruption in government contracts. The website has a scorecard at the top of its frontpage, which showed 73 complaints filed and 39 substantiated by the Russian anti-monopoly service.
Since February, United Russia has been Navalny's focus. He dubbed it the "the party of crooks and thieves" and the label stuck, going viral during the election campaign.
After the vote, Navalny urged his followers to join the protests against election fraud, using the slogan, "Return the stolen elections."
At the Dec. 5 rally, Navalny told protesters, "We should remember that they are nobody and we are the power. We do not need thieves and crooks!"
He was arrested and charged with disobeying police orders, and is now serving a 15-day prison sentence.
In an interview in April with the Russian weekly magazine, The New Times, editor Yevgeniya Albats called Navalny the "future president" and Navalny responded, "I have heard that joke so many times recently."
Since then, he has turned down an offer from the opposition party, Parnas, to be their presidential candidate, explaining that he is certain the results would be fixed.
Navalny is on the cover of the current edition of the Russian edition of Esquire magazine. "He is the most interesting person in Russian politics," editor Dmitry Golubovsky explained.
In addition to organizing the democratic opposition to Putin, Navalny has also appealed for support from Russian nationalists.
Navalny, 35, is married, with two children.
Ilya Yashin, 28, was arrested at the same protest as Navalny and is also now serving 15 days in jail.
Russian opposition activist Ilya Yashin, who was detained during a protest the previous day, is escorted out of a court hearing in Moscow Dec. 6. Yashin received a 15-day prison sentence for disobeying police orders by waving his hands in the air and refusing to leave, according to the judge. Anton Golubev/ReutersHe has been a pro-democracy activist since his teens, attending protests and getting jailed in both Belarus and Russia. Like Navalny, Yashin is a much-followed blogger on LiveJournal.
For this election, Yashin was one of the initiators of the Nah-Nah strategy, an irreverent spoil-the-ballot protest. Their symbol was a pig named Nah-Nah (a Russian expletive for "get lost," but much ruder).
Yashin is now a leader of Solidarnost (Solidarity), a coalition movement of liberal democratic parties. He was the leader of the youth group of the Yabloko party, which ran in these elections, but Yabloko expelled him when he joined Solidarnost.
Last year, Yashin was among the victims of an extensive honeytrap scheme in which a beautiful young prostitute, Ekaterina Gerasimova, would take the men back to her apartment, which was loaded with hidden cameras and microphones.
After talk of a kinky menage-a-trois, Gerasimova brought out drugs. Yashin said he then became suspicious and left and then decided to blog about it, helping to blow the cover on the scheme, but not before many opposition figures had been recorded in embarrassing situations with Gerasimova.
Parnas is the abbreviation for the People's Freedom Party, which in 2010 brought together parties led by Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Vladimir Milov.
Parnas was blocked from running candidates in the 2011 election.
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov speaks during an opposition protest in Moscow Dec. 5. Several thousand people protested what they said was a fraudulent parliamentary election, shouting Revolution! and calling for an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rule. Mikhail Voskresensky/ReutersNemtsov, 52, is fluent in English. He was a deputy prime minister under Yeltsin in the 1990s.
Kasyanov, 54, was a prime minister under Putin.
Eduard Limonov, 68, is one of the leaders of Other Russia (along with chess great Garry Kasparov), a coalition of left and right wing opponents of Putin. Limonov is the founder and leader of the National Bolshevik Party, a key coalition member.
Limonov was a well-known writer before he returned to Russia in 1991 after eight years in New York and nine years in Paris.
Other Russia was also blocked from contesting the 2011 elections, something Limonov called "a huge manipulation." He was detained by police at an election night rally.
Limonov has talked of running in the 2012 presidential election. He was also caught up in the Gerasimova honeytrap scheme.
Writing in the New York Times, former Russian political reporter Valery Panyushkin described how elections for parliament work in Russia. "Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia, faces off against collaborating parties — which would never dare to criticize him. And the real opposition parties are banned."
Among those so-called collaborating parties are the Communist Party and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party.
It is less clear what role two other parties will play. A party called A Just Russia was the big gainer in the election, winning 64 seats and 13 per cent of the vote, according to the official count. The party took up Navalny's line calling Putin's United Russia "the party of crooks and thieves."
Sergei Mitrokhin (R), chairman of political party Yabloko, takes part in a post-election protest in Moscow Dec. 6. Anton Golubev/ReutersA Just Russia's would-be candidate for president, Sergei Mironov, has in the past voiced strong support for Putin, but there is some speculation that with the growing opposition to the existing regime Mironov's party will play more of an opposition role itself. Or it may split into factions.
Yabloko also ran candidates but the party fell well short of the seven per cent threshold needed to get seats. Yabloko is often described as a liberal "quasi-opponent" to Putin but party leader Sergei Mitrokhin was briefly detained at the Dec. 5 protest and he also is supporting the protest being planned for Dec. 10.