On the streets of Moscow, a blanket of snow hides a political storm slowly brewing in Russia.
The boiling point was last December’s parliamentary elections, in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party was accused of election fraud. Demonstrators have taken to the streets since then, demanding new elections and political justice.
Two of those taking part in the protests were Igor and Ekaterina, interior designers who live in Moscow. They are part of Russia’s middle class. A class seen to have greatly prospered over the past twelve years under Putin’s regime, but they disagree.
Igor Anayev, Designer:
“The realisation that things are not getting better but getting worse has been accumulating over the past twelve years, during a period when all the power has remained in the same hands.”
Ekaterina Mikheeva, Designer:
“The elections were like a catalyst because many people were voting thinking their choice would count and it would be fair with no election fraud and that’s why we voted, but it didn’t work out like that.
“When we discovered how votes were counted and when we realised the real outcome with which we were presented, it left us with lots of questions. We realised we have to change the situation.”
They want to change the political landscape which has been dominated by Vladimir Putin, for the past 12 years.
From 2000 to 2008 he was president, for the last four years he has been prime minister, and now he is running for president once again. The elections take place on March 4, and recently when speaking to supporters he spoke confidently:
Vladimir Putin, presidential candidate:
“We defend the dignity of our country and every one of its citizens. Truth is with us. Victory will be ours and we will prevail.”
Truth and victory. Words that ring false for anti-Putin demonstrators not only because of voting fraud allegations, but because Putin and not the current President Dmitri Medvedev will run for office in March.
Ilya Azar works as a journalist at lenta.ru, an online news publication. He showed our correspondent a video which was posted on December 4, the day of the Duma elections.In the video, he and an election observer are trying to interview people who were caught stuffing ballots on camera. This video has had close to 1.5 million hits on YouTube. For Azar, it shows how the ruling political class has lost credibility.
Ilya Azar, Journalist, lenta.ru:
“They (the politicians) were very surprised but now they’re coming to terms with this. Because suddenly, out of the blue, such a lot of people took to the streets. It was impossible to imagine this even in November.
“Everyone saw fraud taking place, but people were not prepared to see it even if they had their suspicions. So the internet and a rise in civil consciousness played an important role. They saw what happened and they were fed up.”
Many of those who are fed up are from Russia’s middle class – a class which emerged during Putin’s time in power and which makes up 20 percent of Russia’s 143 million citizens. Their quality of life improved not only because Putin brought stability to Russia but also because of a rise in economic growth thanks to the country’s natural resources.
At the headquarters for the 36.6 pharmaceutical company, euronews met with its CEO, Artyom Bektemirov, he is a highly successful businessman who denies that the middle class is biting the hand which fed them this prosperity, namely Putin.
Artyom Bektemirov, CEO, 36.6:
“I do respect Putin because he did make enormous changes in the country, especially at the beginning. He put things in order and the changes were massive.
“But nowadays for me, it is so obvious that the existing political and economic systems need to be changed, and first of all the political system, and to my mind Putin just doesn’t have that feeling.”Mikhail Prokhorov is another man who is running for the Russian presidency. Euronews spoke to him at the start of his campaign. He was surrounded by supporters who see him as the man who can bring political change.
But critics have called him a Kremlin project – a candidate to help divide the opposition. Also as Russia’s third richest man, can he truly represent the middle class? In response to this he told us:
Mikhail Prokhorov, presidential candidate:
“I wasn’t born rich. We lived under the Soviet Union and had no money and I started my career as a middle class businessman. So I know all the problems of the people. I know what is important for Russia. To have the middle class as the majority of our people.
Valérie Zabriskie, euronews:
So you are not a Kremlin project? You do not like this idea? It bothers you?
Mikhail Prokhorov: “Once again, I am the project of my parents.”
But while Prokhorov may defend his political independence, one question looms over the upcoming elections, and that is whether there really is a viable alternative to Vladimir Putin.
Elena Volnova who lives in the suburbs of Moscow with her husband and two daughters doesn’t think so. She is a doctor, and her husband works in a company owned by one of Russia’s oligarchs.
For Elena, memories of the chaos of the 1990s following the break-up of the Soviet Union are still vivid. Long queues, little food, unpaid salaries and corruption were rampant. She is grateful to Putin and is voting for him.
Elena Volnova, Doctor:“I am voting for stability in our economic and political lives. Right now I can’t name any single person or politician who is fit for office, who can be an alternative to Putin.
“Of course I’d like to see more reforms, but I don’t want any colossal changes because over the last 100 years there have been a lot of those events in Russian history. I don’t want civil war, I don’t want property to change hands, and I don’t want a return to the 1990’s.”
No return to the 90’s, a decade folk singer, Leonid Agranovich, is all too familiar with. He says despite the difficult times after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was also an exciting time, when everything was open to change.
Today despite great wealth for some, there is poverty for many more. One in seven Russians live on less than five euros a day.
He played us one of his songs. The words are light, even quirky, about a rooster watching carrots. Whether there’s a hidden message in his lyrics isn’t clear, but what is clear is that there is a growing call for change.
Leonid Agranovich, Folksinger:“If the process is taking place, I suppose it indicates that there is a movement underneath. If at least, we have been swimming in murky waters for the last ten years, we have to navigate towards clean water.
“I’m not saying that life is going to be better, because nice food on the table doesn’t mean a nice life, when everything else is in a dire condition.”
Despite the growing call for change, even Putin’s critics agree he is most likely to win next month’s presidential elections. A sign that for a majority of Russians, he has yet to wear out his welcome mat at the Kremlin.