As Russia’s March 4th presidential vote approaches, Vladimir Putin is beginning to realize that, for the first time in 12 years, he may be risking defeat. With 36 percent support in the polls, he will likely have to go into a runoff (local authorities have are already begun preparations), where the outcome will be far from certain. With its survival at stake, the regime is pulling out all the stops to ensure that its man is declared the winner in March.
This week, the Central Election Commission announced that it will disqualify liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky from the presidential ballot, after declaring a quarter of the signatures in support of his nomination “defective.” Apart from disenfranchising millions of democratically minded Russians who would have backed Yavlinsky on March 4th, the Kremlin’s decision is intended to achieve two specific goals. First: with many would-be Yavlinsky voters staying home, the turnout will likely be depressed, thus increasing Putin’s share of the votes cast, and bringing him closer to the 50-percent-plus-one result required to avoid a runoff. Second and, perhaps, more important: Yavlinsky and his Yabloko party have pledged to field 90,000 election monitors across Russia on March 4th to prevent (or at least document and publicize) fraud at the polls. Yabloko monitors played an instrumental role in uncovering the scale of the fraud in December’s parliamentary election, paving the way for the largest pro-democracy protests in Russia since 1991. With Yavlinsky’s name off the ballot, his monitors—15,000 of whom have already signed up—will no longer have access to the polls. Their absence will make the task of “correcting” vote tallies a great deal easier.
The decision to disqualify Yavlinsky was announced at the same time as Golos, Russia’s only independent election monitoring group, was told to vacate its offices by February 1st (even though the lease is valid until August), and was warned that, if it decided to stay, it should expect “trouble with electricity” through March 6th—until just after the first round of the presidential election.
The Kremlin’s strategy is clear: push for a Putin “victory” on the first ballot, by whatever means necessary, and present it as a fait accompli, in the hope that pro-democracy forces lose momentum. Russia’s opposition now has only one choice. As Yabloko chairman Sergei Mitrokhin noted, “Russian courts, just as the Central Election Commission, serve the authorities … therefore it is much more effective in Russia to go to rallies than to go to courts.” This is hard to dispute. December’s 100,000-strong protest rallies in Moscow forced the regime to reinstate direct gubernatorial elections, ease hurdles for registering new political parties, and—for the first time in years—allow opposition leaders on national television.
Only sustained public pressure can disrupt the Kremlin’s scenario for the March vote. Tens of thousands of people are expected to participate in the upcoming pro-democracy march in Moscow on February 4th. With Yavlinsky’s removal from the ballot, their ranks are likely to swell further. On Tuesday, the Moscow authorities announced their refusal to “sanction” the February 4th rally in the city center, and suggested holding the protest at the outskirts of the capital. Opposition leaders have already indicated that protesters will march through central Moscow regardless of what the authorities say. The stakes are rising. The coming weeks will be decisive for Russia’s political future.
Update. At midnight last night, the Moscow mayor’s office reversed its decision and approved the opposition march in central Moscow on February 4th. The march will end with a rally on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin.