I haven't kept up with news in Russia and recent news reports of the rapid political change in the country surprise me.
Putin's United Russia saw its share of popular votes falling from 64% in 2007 to just 48.5% in the recent elections. Opposition supporters are not happy with irregularities in the vote counts - some areas have more votes than eligible voters - and massive protests are expected all over Russia this weekend.
Recall that Putin a was powerful and popular authoritarian who was credited with bringing law and order to Russia and putting the economy back on its feet. He was so powerful at one time, he could ignore human rights and throw his opponents into jail without a dent in his popularity. The opposition which included former world chess champion was fragmented and weak with little support from the ground.
5 years was all it took for things to change in Russia.
Here's what has gone wrong in Russia according to Al Jeezera:
"The public's growing disillusionment with United Russia is concentrated among the country's intellectual elites, young professionals, urbanites and internet users. Their grievances vary from the stifling of freedoms to Putin's growing authoritarianism and the calcification of Russia's political life. "Our votes have been stolen long time ago," writes former world chess champion and now opposition leader Garry Kasparov. "They've been stolen together with our freedom of choice and with our right to express a point of view that is different from the one promoted by the official media."
But a growing majority of Russians say they are unhappy with the ruling party because it has failed to lift their standard of living, despite years of high oil and gas prices, over which Putin presided. "Our pensions are still low and our roads are still bad," says one Moscow resident. "The party of power could have done so much more in the ten years it's been in power," says another. Low salaries, small pensions, soaring inflation, a crumbling infrastructure and unreliable healthcare - these are the main points of dissatisfaction for most Russians. As a result, opposition parties - such as Russia's Communist Party, the Liberal Democrats, and Just Russia - are continuously citing these grievances in their election ads.
But perhaps the biggest problem United Russia faces is its status itself: the status of the party in power. Like the Communist Party of the USSR, United Russia has increasingly become the party of choice for Russia's elites. It boasts over two million members and counts among its own the country's crème de la crème. It includes not only regional governors and major business owners, but also Olympic champions, film directors, pop stars and even a pair of famous lion tamers. Some joined because they genuinely saw United Russia as a party of patriots driven to restore the country's glory after the tumultuous years following the breakup of the Soviet Union. But others sought access to power, privileges and decision-making that came with party membership.
United Russia's status as the ruling party, though, has become a double-edged sword. Ordinary Russians increasingly resent those in power, seeing their wealth while themselves struggling to simply get by in the world of consumer pleasures that now surrounds them. As revelations of corruption emerge and Russians learn about the ways members of United Russia misuse public funds, the party is now called "Partiya Zhulikov i Vorov", or "The Party of Swindlers and Thieves"."