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With ‘Election’ Over, Putin Faces a Changed Country

The three-month “Moscow Spring”—a series of large, pro-democracy protests, from the first opposition gathering on Chistye Prudi on December 5th, to the latest anti-Putin rally on Novyi Arbat on March 10th—has changed Russia beyond recognition. Although Vladimir Putin was, as expected, declared the “winner” of the March 4th presidential election, the principal traits of his 12-year rule: invincibility, impunity (for the regime), and indifference (on the part of society), have been wiped out. His unchallenged rule is over. The tacit deal—economic prosperity in exchange for political freedom—that much of Russian society accepted a dozen years ago is off. The country’s educated and increasingly affluent urban middle class, which was the driving force behind the recent protests, is demanding a political voice.

Muscovites Go to the Streets as Putin Declares ‘Victory’

MOSCOW — An uninformed tourist who happened to be in Moscow in the past three days could be forgiven for thinking that the Russian capital is under a military siege. Thousands of special police forces, interior ministry troops, the elite Dzerzhinsky Division, as well as Chechen police units, were brought to central Moscow to protect Vladimir Putin’s fraudulent “victory.”

In Sunday’s Vote, It’s Putin vs. Russia

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.

Kremlin Talks to Opposition as It Readies ‘Victory’

For years, Vladimir Putin’s regime had only two approaches to its opponents: pretend they do not exist, or portray them as foreign agents. After tens of thousands of Russians answered the opposition’s call and went to the streets to demand free elections, neither option was any longer workable. On Monday—for the first time ever—Putin’s lieutenant, outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev, called opposition leaders for a meeting. The leaders of “non-registered” parties, including Boris Nemtsov of the Popular Freedom Party, Vladimir Ryzhkov of the Republican Party, and Sergei Udaltsov of the United Labor Front, were invited to Gorki, the presidential retreat near Moscow, to discuss the implementation of reforms promised after the December protests.

Kremlin Moves to Silence Independent Radio

Ekho Moskvy is Russia’s oldest independent radio station. In the 21 years for which it has been broadcasting, it was shut down only once: in August 1991, on the order of the leaders of the short-lived Communist coup d’état (to this day, Ekho journalists consider it a badge of honor). In 2001, during Vladimir Putin’s assault on businessman Vladimir Gusinsky’s media empire, which saw its flagship NTV channel seized by the state-run energy giant Gazprom, the majority stake in Ekho Moskvy was also transferred to the company, but the station maintained its independent editorial line. Opposition leaders, barred from national television, continued to be welcome guests in its studios; its news programs routinely covered stories that irritated the Kremlin.

Putin's 'Soviet' Response to Renewed Protests in Russia

“When I saw minus 22 degrees Celsius [minus 8 Fahrenheit] on the thermometer in the morning, I realized that there will not be more than 10,000 to 15,000 people,” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov wrote on February 4th, the day of the announced pro-democracy march in central Moscow. His estimate was not even close. A record freeze that engulfed much of Europe this winter did not help Vladimir Putin. Some 120,000 Muscovites filled Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, Malyi Kamennyi Bridge, and Bolotnaya Square—across the river from the Kremlin walls—to restate the demands for the release of political prisoners, the registration of opposition parties, and the holding of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections; and to pledge not to give “a single vote to Vladimir Putin” on March 4th. Opposition rallies were held in cities and towns across Russia, including St.

Russia: In Search of a ‘Transitional’ President

The upcoming presidential election places Russia’s growing protest movement in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, pro-democracy forces have no candidate of their own: following the experience of 2008, when anti-Kremlin politicians were prevented from running, most opposition leaders declined to participate in the vote; Grigory Yavlinsky, the only liberal leader who did decide to run, has been barred from the ballot. On the other hand, the March vote presents the biggest electoral threat to Vladimir Putin in 12 years.

New Protests Mount in Russia as Kremlin Moves to Fix Vote

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.

Negotiating with the Kremlin

As Vladimir Putin’s regime tries to hold on to power in the face of Russia’s largest pro-democracy protests in 20 years, one of its tactics has been to try to co-opt the opposition. Apart from its noticeable but not game-changing concessions—the return of direct gubernatorial elections and the easing of registration requirements for political parties and presidential candidates—the Kremlin is holding out the prospect of “talks” with the protesters. At least two potential negotiators have emerged from the government’s side: Alexei Kudrin, former minister of finance and a personal friend of Putin’s (who maintains regular contact with him), and Vladimir Lukin, the federal human rights ombudsman. Both have publicly signaled their willingness to facilitate “dialogue” between the Kremlin and its opponents.

Putin’s Election Dilemma

Just weeks ago, Russia’s March 2012 presidential election seemed a foregone conclusion, with Vladimir Putin’s “victory”—by whatever means—virtually guaranteed. So much so that most opposition leaders, with the exception of liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, decided to skip the contest altogether, mindful of the experience of 2008, when pro-democracy candidates Vladimir Bukovsky and Mikhail Kasyanov were denied access to the ballot. The 2012 field (again, with the exception of Yavlinsky) narrowed to a handful of Putin’s handpicked “shadow boxers”: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former Upper House Speaker Sergei Mironov, and ostensibly “center-right” billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Another contender, Kremlin-appointed Irkutsk Governor Dmitri Mezentsev—Putin’s old colleague from St. Petersburg—was chosen as a purely “technical” candidate, for the unlikely event that all the others stood down, thus annulling the election.

The System Without Its Architect: The Kremlin Fires Surkov

For more than twelve years, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, was seen both as the architect and the symbol of Russia’s return to authoritarianism. Considered an éminence grise and the chief ideologist of the regime, Surkov was a quiet but decisive presence in all major decisions taken by the Kremlin since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in the summer of 1999, from the takeover of independent television to the abolition of gubernatorial elections. On Putin’s behalf, Surkov—the author of the term “sovereign democracy”—fine-tuned election results, manipulated Parliament, and dissolved unwanted political parties. Once a bodyguard and a PR manager for oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Surkov had no qualms about serving a regime that put his former boss in prison. He always “takes the shape of the container,” recalls opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. “He has a system [of views] which always corresponds to the views of his superiors.”

As Protests Grow, Putin Looks for an Exit

What a difference three months can make. On September 24th, after Vladimir Putin’s announcement of his return to the presidency, analysts—both in Russia and in the West—were discussing whether his regime was being prolonged until 2024, 2030, or 2036. On December 24th, as tens of thousands gathered in central Moscow to demand free and open elections and an end to authoritarian rule, the question on most people’s minds was whether Putin’s regime will end within months, or whether it will be able to survive for another year or two.

Too Little, Too Late: Putin Offers Concessions to Stay in Power

For the first time in his 12-year rule, Vladimir Putin is fighting for political survival. Following the fraudulent parliamentary election earlier this month, Russia was swept with pro-democracy rallies on a scale unseen since 1991; the largest of these protests brought out 100,000 people to central Moscow on December 10th. According to a Levada Center poll, Putin’s support in the capital has fallen to a record-low 28 percent. Nationally, the government-owned VTsIOM polling agency estimates that Putin will receive 42 percent in the March 4th presidential election, thus failing to win a first-round victory. Given the current environment, an obvious rigging of that vote is likely to cause even bigger protests around the country.

In December, a Moscow Spring

December 10, 2011, was the day that, for all intents and purposes, marked the end of Vladimir Putin’s era. Russia’s strongman may survive in power for now, but the omnipotence and impunity to which he has grown accustomed in the past decade are decidedly over. Never again will the regime be able to ride roughshod over Russia’s citizens, knowing that the worst of its excesses will be met with apathy and silence. It was a day long awaited by the country’s pro-democracy movement and long-feared by Putin’s associates; a day skeptics—who like to theorize about how Russians are “unsuited to democracy” and “in need of a firm hand”—predicted would never come.

Vladimir Putin, the Beginning of the End

Apart from silencing opponents and enriching personal friends, the one thing Vladimir Putin was really good at was fixing elections. In this, he had a perfect track record since March 2000—until last Sunday. The Russian parliamentary election on December 4th was neither free nor fair. Several opposition groups had been barred from the ballot; officials pressured voters to support the ruling party; the vote-count was marred by ballot-stuffing and the rigging of protocols. But even in these conditions—and even by the official figures—most Russians voted against Vladimir Putin. His party, United Russia, received 49.3 percent of the vote, losing its two-thirds supermajority in Parliament for the first time in eight years. Compared to the last poll in 2007, when it registered 64.3 percent, United Russia’s result represents a net loss of 13 million votes and 77 seats in the 450-seat Duma (down from 315 to 238).

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