Little could Vladimir Putin have imagined that the manipulation of elections ? in which, despite everything, his party lost almost a quarter of its seats ? could end up posing an unprecedented challenge to his absolute control of the state over the past 12 years. The biggest surprise in the parliamentary elections, held on December 4, is not that support for his United Russia party fell to below 50 percent of the votes cast, but that tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the country's main cities ? and have announced that they will continue to do so ? to demand new elections and express their indignation at a blatant case of fraud that is the manifestation of an unacceptable state of affairs.
Putin's reading of the situation has been that his compatriots were willing to forgo freedom for an improvement in their quality of living, which, by dint of high oil and gas prices, had been maintained until two years ago. The electoral farce, however, has confronted the tsar with the reality of an urban middle class, previously not given to protest, that has become the standard bearer for the anger directed at an opaque and corrupt system closed to political competition, and that basically operates at the margins of the law, despite the Kremlin's repeated promises of reform. The apogee of this travesty was the revelation that Putin and the as-yet-president of the country, Dmitry Medvedev, had agreed a long time ago to swap posts to ensure the perpetuation of "Putinism."
It is apparent that Moscow is at a loss as to how to deal with this new phenomenon. The initial response of crude repression gave way to the accusation that Washington was behind the protests, only later for them to be considered as a sign of democratic health, and for Medvedev subsequently to proffer the patently hollow promise of an investigation into the election rigging. In the past few days, the regime has softened its tone and allowed televised coverage of the dissent. A multimillionaire, hitherto of little liking to the Kremlin, has even announced his intention to challenge Putin in the presidential election, due to be held in March.
The vote may not constitute a decisive change in the political scenery of a country where the autocratic Putin still commands the approval of 40 percent of its citizens, but events have revealed an insuppressible desire for change and add an element of instability in monolithic Russia. Putin should have no doubt about whether to opt for suppression or surgical intervention of a putrefied system.