Kazan’s white revolution


One of least believable returns in Russia’s disputed elections was a figure that put United Russia’s vote in Tatarstan at nearly 80%. Last Saturday, some 2,000 Tatars braved the cold to demonstrate against the obvious fraud. Authorities were infuriated by their inability to find the "organisers" of this social network-engineered protest, writes Oleg Pavlov

Oleg Pavlov
16 December 2011

Kazan, unlike Moscow, was frosty on 10th December; the thermometers showed minus twelve degrees, and the wind made standing around outside pretty uncomfortable. I froze just waiting for the one bus that links my neighbourhood with the city centre. I waited for ages and it didn’t come. It crossed my mind that it might have been cancelled because of the protest. But in the end it did turn up. There is a stop for this route on Ploschad Svobody, where the ‘Fair Elections’ rally was to take place, but I got off the bus at an earlier stop and walked the rest of the way. You could see streams of people converging on the square from all directions. The rally was due to begin at 3pm. I was immediately struck by the large numbers of police and crowd control vehicles. Several ambulances were also standing by.

I estimated the crowd at about 2,000, most of them young people. But there could have been more. The police evidently decided that there were enough people in the square and sealed it off, so that many people coming to take part in the protest were left behind the barriers. People started chanting ‘Shame’ and ‘Give us Back our Votes’.

'What had angered the people of Kazan, like many others throughout Russia, was the unpardonable behaviour of the authorities, who shamelessly rigged the elections to the Federal Duma.'

Two speakers managed to address the crowd from the steps of the Lenin statue, but then the police moved in. The city authorities had refused the rally a permit, claiming that the organisers had failed to file the necessary application forms, and the police used this as grounds for demanding that the protesters clear the square. The demonstrators began to chant ‘Police, support the people!’ At that moment there was a bang from somewhere and the OMON riot police sealed off the square. It looked very like a put up job.

The Tatarstan Minister of Internal Affairs, General of Police Asgat Safarov, appeared. He was immediately besieged by the local media, to the extent that my friend, the editor in chief of one of Kazan’s internet newspapers, and I had to literally jump on the backs of the crush of journalists. (The local press and TV, by the way, wrote and showed nothing about the rally). And even then we only caught Safarov’s last words, sounding distinctly annoyed: ‘Well then, have you had a good look at me? Now go home.’ A strange phrase, even an insulting one – we hadn’t come to look at him, we wanted to hear some kind of coherent statement, we wanted to know what the police were going to do, and all we got was some impenetrable arrogance.

Mass arrests

What the police did was begin to arrest people – and at the precise moment when the protesters were starting to disperse. Many, realising what was happening, decided to stick with the main body of demonstrators. Perhaps that was why, despite the cold, the square remained full until the evening, when the police, according to eyewitnesses, started arresting people en masse. Ministry of Internal Affairs figures put the number detained at over a hundred.


For the last twenty years, the authorities of the Republic of Tatarstan have been aware that the degree of their autonomy to a great extent depends on their ability to deliver favourable election results. The official figures from the recent Duma elections declared an unlikely 80% support, which in the eyes of locals amounted to shameless election fraud. Thousands turned out to take part in protest actions.

Among the first to be arrested were Ayrat Zyamilov, a well known local public activist, and Oleg Belgorodsky, the Tatarstan coordinator of the GOLOS election monitoring group.  Belgorodsky was released after a few hours, but Ayrat spent the night at a police station, where he says he was kept standing the whole time, without any chance to rest or sleep. The next morning he was brought before a court, which was working even though it was a Sunday. There followed prolonged negotiations between the police and the judge, and evidently the head of the local Ministry of the Interior himself showed up at some point. The problem was that Ayrat was a member of his local constituency electoral commission, with a deciding vote, and enjoyed judicial immunity, so that not only did the police have no right to bring him to court – they had no right to even arrest him. Which the police were aware of, but they were very keen to see him convicted.

The police evidently believed that this young man (Ayrat is about 25) was one of the organisers of the rally. They couldn’t get their heads round the fact that there were no organisers. Immediately after the declaration of the election results for Tatarstan, where the official figures put United Russia’s share of the vote at 80%, someone flung down the gauntlet on the internet, and everything took off spontaneously. Ayrat’s only crime was to put the statement on the social media site of his ‘Social Activists’ group. After that, visitor numbers to the site soared from 60 to 6000 people per day!

But where are the organisers? 

I know for a fact that there were no organisers of the protest, because a few days before it I tried to find them. I talked to Ayrat himself and to other social activists, the people who usually organise protest actions in Kazan. But they too were looking for these people, because they knew that someone had to actually apply for a permit to hold a rally, otherwise the police would have an excuse to break it up, which of course is what they did. When they realised that there was nobody organising the protest, these people took steps themselves to protect people coming to the rally from the possible consequences. They managed to find a person who had actually applied for a permit for an event on 10th December in Ploschad Svobody long before the election! And permission had been granted! There is in Kazan a man by the name of Dmitry Berdnikov, who runs an organisation called ‘Against Crime and Lawlessness’.  And he spends all his time putting in applications to hold events, almost every day, just in case. Berdnikov agreed to let the protest go ahead using his permit. But the authorities immediately cancelled it, citing an ‘improperly completed application’. So the Kazan rally was illegal.

What had angered the people of Kazan, like many others throughout Russia, was the unpardonable behaviour of the authorities, who shamelessly rigged the elections to the Federal Duma. Election day, 4th December, started in Kazan with the exclusion from some polling stations of GOLOS representatives, who do nothing to interfere with the election process, but simply monitor what goes on at polling stations and note any irregularities that may occur.

According to GOLOS’s coordinator in Tatarstan, Oleg Belgorodsky, local election committees made impossible demands: ’they were asking for nonexistent and unnecessary bits of paperwork, guidelines, accreditations. They rejected two observers and we had to find replacements’. Belgorodsky says that the serious irregularities began with the counting of ballot papers, the most common thing being observers denied access to this process. According to Oleg, many of them were actually removed from the building. ‘At one polling station they were told that GOLOS observers were allowed to collect information 80 metres away from the building. At another, that they could stand no closer than 20 metres from the table where the votes were being counted.’ 

‘In places where there were strong observers, whose integrity had been evident at previous elections, the count was carried out completely differently … There was none of this 80% for United Russia, or, as happened in one rural area of Tatarstan, a massive 99.14%.’

This is confirmed by the leader of the Yabloko political party in Tatarstan, Ruslan Zinatullin, who told me that outside Kazan, in other regions and cities of Tatarstan, observers were under a lot of pressure. ‘In Naberezhnye Chelny Yabloko members of the election committee with deciding votes were harassed and threatened. Some have had administrative cases taken out against them.’ But in Kazan too, things were far from quiet. Even members of Tatarstan’s central electoral commission were harassed and removed from polling stations by police when they attempted to impose the procedures clearly laid down by law on the vote counting process. Among them was Artur Gabidullin, a communist member of the central electoral commission: ‘I had a bit of a brush with the chair and committee of one constituency. I was taken off to the local police station and charged with a breach of clause 5.6 of the electoral law, in other words I was accused of interfering with committee members’ observation of the count.’

Igor Veselov, who was chief Communist Party observer in the Kazan  Moscow District constituency, told me that he knew of incidents of ballot box stuffing: ‘At the count there were packets of ballot papers falling out of the boxes. When observers checked them they were all votes for United Russia.’ Igor’s claim is confirmed by the numerous videos that have literally jammed the internet.


Unlike the rally in Moscow which was sanctioned and policed admirably, authorities in Kazan declared the Duma election protest illegal. Police sealed of the square and more than 100 people were arrested.  

But in places where there were strong observers, whose integrity had been evident at previous elections, the count was carried out completely differently. Ayrat  Zyamilov, the man who was arrested at the rally, was a Communist representative on his local electoral commission, with a deciding vote, and he says that when the count was conducted correctly the results came out completely differently: ‘The results in our constituency speak for themselves. United Russia got 387 votes – that’s 34%, and the Communist party got 301 votes – 26%. There was none of this 80% for United Russia, or, as happened in one rural area of Tatarstan, a massive 99.14%.’

This is why observers are so important. And regional GOLOS coordinator Oleg Belgorodsky intends to arm his observers with technical aids, to enable proper monitoring of the count at the presidential elections in March. ‘At the presidential elections we will provide GOLOS correspondents with binoculars and spy glasses, so they can see where the crosses are on the ballot papers even from 20 metres away.’            

‘It is strange, to say the least, to hear from the powers that be that all the objectors were being paid by ‘western manipulators’. Do they trot out this claim because it is a long time since any of them did anything without being amply rewarded for it and they can’t believe that other people do things out of sincere conviction?’

In spite of the flagrancy of the irregularities at the elections and the blatant way in which they took place, the authorities decided to ignore all the evidence. The result has been a massive display of public anger. No one who came out on the streets was there to represent the views of a particular party – what outraged people was the government’s utter contempt for its own declared intentions. Many of the protesters were young people who didn’t see and don’t remember the Russia of the late 1980s, 1991 or 1993. They have no idea how to run a meeting, but they want their voices heard. At the same time the claim that it was only the young who came out is untrue; there were many mature, solid citizens from what is generally known as the middle classes.

A prerevolutionary situation?

So it is strange, to say the least, to hear from the powers that be that all the objectors were being paid by ‘western manipulators’. Do they trot out this claim because it is a long time since any of them did anything without being amply rewarded for it and they can’t believe that other people do things out of sincere conviction? It certainly looks like it. Having seen how many people were out on the streets they now talk about ‘professional revolutionaries’, bankrolled by the West, stirring up the public, and the rest of the protesters as ‘lost sheep’. This is an insult. The majority of these ‘revolutionaries’, and journalists who write from an opposition point of view, live in dire poverty. I know that the regional leader of one opposition party drives a taxi at night in order to feed his family. They have great difficulty finding work, and those of them who run some kind of business have regular problems with the authorities.  But they see themselves as citizens of their country and cannot and will not act otherwise. But evidently Russia’s rulers can no longer understand such commitment to one’s country.

People are keen to give what is happening in Russia a name – the White Revolution, the Snow Revolution. It is not yet a revolution. But it is clearly a prerevolutionary situation. Russians will probably give Putin another six years in power. But if our rulers continue to display such arrogance and kleptomania the storm clouds could then begin to gather. And they won’t be able to claim that someone rocked the boat – they will have sunk it themselves. What we can say is that Russia has undergone a massive shift – its leaders have lost their legitimacy. And so they are no longer either feared or respected.  

How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

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Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

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Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

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Josh Rudolph Fellow for Malign Finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

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