On Monday, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki was at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, attending a performance of Rodion Shchedrin’s opera Dead Souls. As the performance was getting underway, spectators noticed Penderecki in the box and started booing. The legendary musician was bewildered, not understanding the reason for such hostility. Only later was it explained to him that the audience mistook him for Vladimir Churov, the chairman of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission—to whom he indeed bears an uncanny resemblance.
As Sunday’s presidential election draws near, the public frustration with Vladimir Putin is becoming increasingly apparent. Over the weekend, thousands of Muscovites formed a human chain alongside the 10-mile Garden Ring Road—inspired by the pro-independence “Baltic Way” of 1989—to protest Putin’s return to power and demand free and fair elections. In St. Petersburg, thousands of people from across the political spectrum marched through the city center calling for “a peaceful revolution.” Attitudes to the regime are also being expressed in less political ways: a mock Channel One “news report” from the future showing Putin’s arrest and trial in Moscow became an instant online hit, with five million views in one week.
The latest pre-election poll conducted by the independent “Open Opinion” project found that Putin, with 48 percent of the vote, still fails to pass the threshold required for a first-round victory. The opposition is mobilizing turnout to make fraud more difficult. Some pro-democracy leaders, like Boris Nemtsov and Grigory Yavlinsky, are urging voters to spoil their ballots. Others, such as renowned Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, are calling for a tactical vote for one of the “alternative” candidates—in Bukovsky’s case, for businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, whom he considers a potential “Russian Yushchenko,” a formerly pro-regime figure who can help the opposition. Independent monitoring groups, meanwhile, are mounting an effort to cover the maximum number of polling places on March 4th: more than 25,000 volunteers have already signed up.
Russia’s political future will be decided not on March 4th, but on March 5th, when Moscow is expecting to see the largest street protests to date. That the vote will be illegitimate is already clear—if for no other reason than the disqualification of Yavlinsky, the only truly anti-Kremlin candidate in the race. In addition, according to a media study conducted by Gennady Zyuganov’s campaign, 72 percent of television airtime from December to February was dedicated to Putin, with 28 percent divided up between the remaining four candidates. During the campaign, independent media outlets, including the radio station Ekho Moskvy, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and the television channel Dozhd, came under attack from the authorities. This week, state media reports of an alleged Chechen assassination plot against Putin fueled concerns about possible preparations for a crackdown.
There is little doubt that the official tallies announced on the evening of March 4th by Vladimir Churov will give Putin more than 50 percent of the vote. This much became clear when the government-owned VTsIOM polling agency predicted that Putin will win on the first ballot. The real question, though, is whether Russian citizens will accept this “victory.” For the first time in a decade, the answer to this question is far from certain.