Russia stands at one of its proverbial crossroads. Yesterday, for the third evening running, Muscovites took to the streets calling for Vladimir Putin to go. They also gained a notable ally, in Mikhail Gorbachev, who issued an appeal for Sunday's parliamentary elections to be rerun. As the last leader of the Soviet Union turned global statesman, Mr Gorbachev knows a thing or two about what popular protest can do.
It is true that opposition marches on the day after the count have been something of a set piece of recent Russian elections, as has the overreaction of the authorities, in the shape of riot police and intimidating hardware. But this week's protests have been different. They are bigger; they have not been monopolised by the usual pro-Western suspects; the participants are mostly young, and the slogans target one man: the Prime Minister, Mr Putin.
What is not different is the authorities' clumsy response. By yesterday, upwards of 800 people had been detained. One of the protest leaders, the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, had been sentenced to 15 days in prison. But such a response cannot be sustained: every new prisoner provides a new focus for protest.
Elections, as many an undemocratic regime has learnt, can be dangerous – however carefully they are prepared. Such regimes also know that it is rarely the election as such that prompts dissension, but the count. With the internet, Russians had the tools for the first time to test the veracity of the results. Especially in the capital, many voters did not like what they saw.
Faced with the prospect of more and bigger protests, the choice facing the authorities is stark: to increase the repression; to buy off a sceptical public with concessions; or – probably only in the last resort – to rerun the election. As he weighs up the narrowing options, Mr Putin may well reflect on the fickleness of fate. Not so long ago, his poll ratings stood at 80 per cent and he was set fair to return to the presidency. Now, for the first time in more than a decade, Russia's political future is genuinely in play.Reuse content