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Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits the Central Elections Commission office in Moscow, on December 7, 2011.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty years ago Thursday, Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislau Shushkevich gathered at a cottage near the Polish border and signed an accord that within weeks brought about the final collapse of the USSR. If things had things gone as planned, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus would have become the healthy liberal democracies their leaders envisioned, and Thursday might have been a holiday in the three independent states.

Instead, it will be another day of tension on the streets of Moscow, as protesters angry over allegedly fraudulent election results prepare for another showdown with police on the streets of the Russian capital.

By late Wednesday, more than 22,000 people had added their names to a Facebook page, saying they intended to join a "Meeting for Clean Elections" Saturday on Moscow's Revolution Square, a short walk from the Kremlin walls. More than 11,000 more had signed up via a Russian social networking site V Kontaktye. Thousands of others had listed themselves on both sites as "maybe" attending.

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Anger is spreading in Russia over the conduct of Sunday's parliamentary election, as well as a controversial plan that will see President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin swap jobs this spring so that Mr. Putin can have as many as 12 more years in the Kremlin.

The question now is whether the numbers on the social-networking sites translate into numbers on the streets.

Moscow has already this week witnessed two of the biggest anti-government protests since the 1990s. Thousands of extra police officers and paramilitary troops are now in the capital, including the Interior Ministry's elite Dzerzhinsky division, which specializes in suppressing crowds.

Lost in the growing drama is the anniversary of the historic Dec. 8, 1991 meeting after which so much potential was unrealized. In Ukraine, democracy is also in dire straits, with opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko jailed after an overtly political prosecution by the government of President Viktor Yanukovich. Belarussians, meanwhile, are no freer today under strongman Alexander Lukashenko than they were under the Soviet leaders he idolizes.

But after years of seeing all three countries backslide at different speed towards their authoritarian past, there is finally a whiff of change in the air.

The protests in Moscow (and also St. Petersburg) were preceded by a stunning parliamentary election that saw a majority of Russians vote against the ruling United Russia party. They did so despite what monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called an "unfairly slanted" campaign marred by "a convergence of the state and the governing party."

The awakening in Russia bodes well for its neighbours. Ukrainians, of course, rose up seven years ago in the wake of an election fraud there. But the Orange Revolution as it was called has since come undone, in no small part due to interference from Moscow.

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Belarussians, too, have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent years to demand change. But Mr. Lukashenko's regime, while isolated by the rest of Europe, could always count on the Kremlin to support it in a crisis.

Much depends now on how Mr. Putin responds to the public anger. So far, the Kremlin's response has been to throw protesters in jail (though not those who belong to pro-Putin groups) and try to silence the widespread allegations of ballot-rigging. It's a strategy that seems sure to create greater public anger against a government already viewed as arrogant and deeply corrupt.

In an indirect acknowledgment of the public anger, Mr. Putin has said he will introduce a new government after he returns to the presidency. That sounds like a concession, but it also makes clear that Mr. Putin – who was president from 2000 to 2008 before sliding into the theoretically subordinate role of prime minister – has no expectation that the March presidential election will be anything but a formality.

But his path back to the Kremlin is not as clear as it looked even a week ago. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was excluded from the secret meeting 20 years ago, said Wednesday that he agreed with the opposition protesters.

"The country's leaders must admit there were numerous falsifications [during the Duma election]and rigging and the results do not reflect the people's will," he told the Interfax news service, adding that he thought the results should be thrown out and a new vote held. "In my opinion, disregard for public opinion is discrediting the authorities and destabilizing the situation."

Rather than celebrations in Moscow, there are thousands of extra Interior Ministry troops on the streets, defending the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin – who famously called the fall of the USSR "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century" – against a remarkable series of street protests.

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In Ukraine, democracy is also in dire straits, with opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko jailed following an overtly political prosecution. Belarusians, meanwhile, are no freer today under strongman Alexander Lukashenko than they were under the Soviet leaders he idolizes.

But after years of seeing all three countries backslide at different speeds towards their authoritarian past, change may be in the air.

The demonstrations this week in Moscow and St. Petersburg – while not yet a threat to Mr. Putin's rule – were preceded by a stunning parliamentary election that saw a majority of Russians vote against the ruling United Russia party. They did so despite what monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called an unfairly "slanted" campaign marred by "a convergence of the state and the governing party."

The awakening in Russia bodes well for its neighbours. Ukrainians, of course, rose up seven years ago in the wake of an election fraud there. But the Orange Revolution has since come undone, in no small part due to interference from Moscow.

Belarusians, too, have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent years to demand change. But Mr. Lukashenko's regime, while isolated by the rest of Europe, could always count on the Kremlin to support it in a crisis.

Much depends now on how Mr. Putin responds to the public anger. So far, the Kremlin's response has been to throw protesters in jail (though not those who belong to pro-Putin groups) and to try to silence the widespread allegations of ballot-rigging. It's a strategy that seems sure to create greater public anger against a government already viewed as arrogant and deeply corrupt.

Story continues below advertisement

In an indirect acknowledgement of the public anger, Mr. Putin said Tuesday that he would introduce a new government after he returns to the presidency. That sounds like a concession, but it also makes clear that Mr. Putin has no expectation that the March presidential vote will be anything but a formality.

Mr. Putin – who was hailed as a reformer when he first ascended to the Kremlin a dozen years ago – has it within his power to go much further. He can open Russia's political system, beginning by allowing voters a real choice in the March presidential election.

Though Mr. Putin would still be a favourite to win, a fair election would nonetheless be a risk for him and for Russia (Egyptians can testify to how uncomfortable real democracy can be).

But after 12 years of putting "stability" ahead of personal freedoms, it's clear that Russians feel they have not enough of either. It's time to bring the neo-Soviet experiment to an end, and to give Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians the countries they thought they were getting 20 years ago.

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