May 25, 2013
Russia Expects More From Putin
Posted on Mar 14, 2012
By Ivo Mijnssen
The name of Russia’s new—and old—president is Vladimir Putin. He won the presidential election of March 4 with 64 percent of the vote, a number slightly higher than predicted in polls. Those who had hoped for a second round of elections were disappointed. Putin’s opponents did not stand a chance against the prime minister’s well-oiled campaign. His presence on television was overwhelming, and he used numerous “official” trips to the provinces to promote his candidacy. The Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, came in second with just over 17 percent of the vote. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, whose candidacy had received much attention (see my recent article in Truthdig), got almost 8 percent—a respectable showing considering the circumstances.
Putin has towered over Russian politics for the past 12 years, staying in charge even when he handed over the reins of the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev for four years. When Putin finishes his extended presidential term, he will have ruled Russia for the same amount of time as Leonid Brezhnev did in the Soviet Union—with the possibility of an additional six years from 2018 to 2024.
Addressing tens of thousands of supporters on the evening of his election, Putin stated that it had been a fair and clean contest. With tears in his eyes, he declared that the Russian people had passed a “test of political maturity.” And, directed at the protest movement in the major Russian cities, he added: “We showed that our people know how to distinguish between the desire for change and renewal, and political provocations that pursue the sole objective of undermining Russia’s statehood and usurping power. Russia’s people showed today that such scenarios will get nowhere here.”
Putin’s remarks were directed against the organizers of the mass protests that attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators since the Duma elections on Dec. 4. Unlike the opposition parties represented in the Duma, which are loyal to Putin, these protesters reject the tightly controlled political system in Russia. Fearing further mass protests, the government mobilized 12,000 soldiers and policemen in the capital. Fifteen thousand demonstrators gathered for a protest meeting in downtown Moscow the day after the election. When some refused to disperse, 250 were detained, among them various organizers of the protest. The security forces released them the next morning, after they had paid a fine.
Not only this unsanctioned opposition, but also Zyuganov refuse to recognize the election and demand a fraud investigation. The nongovernmental organization GOLOS (Voice) has documented almost 5,000 cases of fraudulent practices on its website. These were recorded by thousands of election observers who received training from opposition groups and the Prokhorov campaign.
More disputed than the cameras’ entertainment value, however, is their usefulness in uncovering voting fraud. Although the Central Election Commission maintained that it had prevented large-scale fraud and Putin stated that at most 1 percent of the votes were falsified, independent observers begged to differ. GOLOS points out that the cameras were set up far away from the ballot boxes, and that voters often covered them with their bodies when they cast their vote. Moreover, many people voted at their workplace (under the supervision of their superiors), and these polling stations had no cameras. They were also unable to detect “carousel voters,” groups of paid activists who were ferried to various polling stations to cast multiple votes.
Crucially, however, the cameras could not monitor manipulations after the polling stations closed. This kind of tinkering with results is considered to be far more prevalent than the more obvious violations during the voting process. Results like the 99.73 percent that Putin received in Chechnya certainly seem too good to be true. Additionally, observers noted that Putin’s overall result improved throughout election day, a surprising fact since exit polls clearly indicated a poorer showing in the big cities, which were counted last. The League of Voters, founded by opposition leader Boris Akunin, released its own count, which gave Putin only 53 percent of the overall vote.
This clear evidence of voter fraud certainly taints Putin’s legitimacy. Even by the skeptics’ count, however, Putin received a majority of votes. His popularity remains considerable. Those who rely on the Russian state for their livelihoods—retirees, workers in state-run industries and the rural population in the provinces—credit Putin with securing their pensions, endangered jobs and agricultural subsidies. Large parts of the economic elite, furthermore, continue to support Putin because they see him as a guarantee against inquiries into the origins of the fortunes they made during the privatization process of the 1990s. Moreover, many still consider Putin to be an important symbolic figure who represents the country’s unity.
Regardless, it is doubtful whether Putin will simply be able to return to business as usual after the elections. The ongoing protests show that Putin’s support among educated and urban Russians is declining rapidly. This middle class, which has profited most from the stable economic growth under Putin, is nonetheless increasingly impatient with the lack of political participation and Russia’s endemic corruption.
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