Unrest Shakes Up Politics In Russia

Tens of thousands of people filled an avenue in Moscow on Christmas Eve to protest the alleged rigging of the Dec. 4 parliamentary polls in a challenge to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's authority. i i

Tens of thousands of people filled an avenue in Moscow on Christmas Eve to protest the alleged rigging of the Dec. 4 parliamentary polls in a challenge to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's authority. Yuri Kadobnov /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yuri Kadobnov /AFP/Getty Images
Tens of thousands of people filled an avenue in Moscow on Christmas Eve to protest the alleged rigging of the Dec. 4 parliamentary polls in a challenge to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's authority.

Tens of thousands of people filled an avenue in Moscow on Christmas Eve to protest the alleged rigging of the Dec. 4 parliamentary polls in a challenge to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's authority.

Yuri Kadobnov /AFP/Getty Images

On a recent cold, gray day in Moscow, several dozen reporters and photographers milled about restlessly on the main floor of the Central Election Commission of Russia.

The person they were waiting to see was supposed to be there at 10 a.m. Nearly six hours later, Mikhail Prokhorov, appeared at the front door and smiled for the cameras.

Prokhorov is one of the richest men in Russia, making most of his fortune in nickel mining. The 46-year-old is also the owner of the New Jersey Nets, and now he's running for president of Russia. He has the money to organize, plenty of connections and, so far, no problems from the Kremlin.

Prokhorov was at the election commission to hand in more than 2 million signed forms necessary to endorse his candidacy — quite a feat, considering he only had one month to collect the names. He looked stiff and uncomfortable, not what you would call a natural candidate. There is ongoing criticism that Prime Minister Vladamir Putin brought Prokhorov into the presidential race to help split the opposition. Prokhorov denies it.

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov speaks to election officials as he submits documents in the Central Election Commission to officially register as a candidate in March's presidential election. i i

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov speaks to election officials as he submits documents in the Central Election Commission to officially register as a candidate in March's presidential election. Sergey Ponomarev/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov speaks to election officials as he submits documents in the Central Election Commission to officially register as a candidate in March's presidential election.

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov speaks to election officials as he submits documents in the Central Election Commission to officially register as a candidate in March's presidential election.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP

"Anything I say now will not be very convincing. So it is necessary to prove this not by words but by deeds," Prokhorov says. "That's what I've always done when I worked in business."

Prokhorov hopes to appeal to middle-class voters, who are fed up with endemic corruption and the political elite, especially Putin. And they've taken to the streets to demand change.

The mass protests that erupted in December seem to have breathed new life into the opposition in Russia — everything from the political old guard to artists and writers — and into a new breed of activists using the Internet to keep the protests alive.

One of the galvanizing forces behind the opposition is 35-year-old lawyer Alexei Navalny. Navalny is young, brash and capable of invigorating the crowds. He calls United Russia, the ruling party, the party of crooks and thieves. But Navalny isn't running for president; he says he won't until he's sure the elections will be free and fair.

In fact, there's no one person leading the many activists and new movements sharing the stage with Navalny. Commentator Konstantin von Eggert says at some point they'll have to decide whether to stay together and pursue political aims, or split up. Otherwise, the protests could peter out.

"People cannot live on emotions forever, and this is the problem with this movement," von Eggert says. "It will eventually have to take some organized forms to which people could relate without being called to the streets every third week."

But organizing isn't always easy, as the Kremlin can throw up obstacles that are impossible to clear.

In a cramped, dingy basement is the office of Vladimir Ryzhkov, the co-chairman of the liberal People's Freedom party. Ryzhkov was in the Duma, the parliament, for more than a decade, until the Kremlin refused to allow his party to register. Ryzhkov says it is part of Putin's systematic tightening of political freedom.

"We can't participate in elections, in any elections, on any level," Ryzhkov says. "Putin closed more than 40 political parties for the last four years. Now we have only seven registered political parties, and only registered political parties can participate in elections."

Those registered parties include the Communists — who are expected to place a distant second in the presidential election — a hard-right party and every ideology in between, none of which is expected to garner many votes.

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