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).

The Boos and the Ballots: Russia’s 2011 Election Heads to Its Finale

The closing days of Russia’s 2011 election campaign did not go well for Vladimir Putin. On November 20th—for the first time in his 12-year rule—Putin was booed by a thousands-strong crowd at a Moscow stadium. Russian television carried his speech—and the boos—live, but edited the soundtrack during subsequent playbacks. Unaccustomed to such reception, the premier cancelled two announced public appearances at antidrug concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg (his deputy, Dmitri Kozak, did appear at the St. Petersburg event—and was booed by the audience). For many analysts, this marked a turning-point for Putin’s regime. Opinion polls confirm that most Russians—outside of Putin’s stage-managed party congresses—are less than enthusiastic about his return to the presidency in 2012.

Between Putin and Stalin

In a dream, Vladimir Putin sees the ghost of Joseph Stalin and asks for his advice on running the country. “Round up and shoot the opposition, and then repaint the Kremlin walls blue,” Stalin says. “Why blue?” Putin asks. “Very good,” Stalin replies, “I knew you wouldn’t ask about the first part.”

— Russian joke from 2000

As Russia’s December 4th parliamentary “elections” approach, opposition supporters are looking for a way to weaken the dominance of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy—no easy task, with campaigning and voting strictly controlled, and several anti-Kremlin groups barred from the ballot altogether. In such context, some well-meaning Russians are considering a vote for the Communist Party as the “largest opposition group.” The argument is that, with strengthened Communists in the Duma, Putin’s supporters will have to “make deals and compromise,” which will change the political atmosphere.

Russia’s Impending Crisis

Opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime now constitute a majority of the population in Russia’s largest cities; it is only a matter of time before the “conformist part of the population that … traditionally follows the majority” turns against the government; the country is entering a period of political crisis that is unlikely to subside after the December 4th parliamentary “elections.” This forecast is not from a Russian opposition pamphlet or an American newspaper op-ed, but from the most recent report by Russia’s Center for Strategic Research, a government-affiliated think tank established by Putin’s associates to draft his 2000 presidential agenda. The center’s board is currently chaired by Putin’s deputy prime minister, Dmitri Kozak.

Russia’s Voters Speak Out

One of the favorite pastimes of Russia’s political analysts is guessing what the results of a free and fair election in the country would look like—no easy task, since the last genuinely competitive vote was held in 1999. With most polling agencies taken over by the government, and online polls clearly unscientific, any prediction is as good as another. One way to gauge public opinion and measure the relative standing of political parties is a “mock election”—an exercise launched by the opposition Solidarity movement earlier this year. Every few weeks, Solidarity activists across Russia—from Archangelsk to Yaroslavl—print mock ballots, set up mock ballot boxes on the streets and squares, and ask passing citizens to register their votes by means of a secret ballot. The results from around the country are then tabulated and published.

Two Russias React to US Visa Sanctions Bill

Western proponents of realpolitik and the Kremlin’s “fellow travelers” routinely caution world leaders against criticizing Moscow over its dismal human rights and democracy record, as such criticism, in their view, would only “irritate Russia” and sour relations. This argument is true—if one takes “Russia” to mean Vladimir Putin’s unelected clique of corrupt bureaucrats, former security operatives, and billionaire friends. For those who do not equate a great nation with a rogue regime and pay attention to the genuine voices of Russian society, such a view is a travesty. With regard to human rights, nowhere is the discrepancy between the two Russias more evident than in the attitudes toward S.1039, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, a US Senate bill that would impose visa sanctions and asset freezes on Russian officials responsible for violating human rights, including “the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.”

Mr. Putin & the ‘Common People’

Western leaders must envy Vladimir Putin. They can only dream of a primetime television interview, broadcast by all major networks, with obsequious, prescreened questions, and the knowledge that nothing they say—however untruthful or outrageous—will be publically challenged, since their opponents are not allowed on the air.

In Brezhnev’s Footsteps—and Proud of It

For all the obvious similarities between Vladimir Putin and Soviet dictators—from stage-managed party congresses to farcical “elections”—the regime in Moscow was at least shy to admit the likeness publicly. No longer, it seems. In a television interview last week, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, not only accepted the comparison of his boss to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, but readily embraced it. “Brezhnev was not a negative for our country’s history,” Peskov opined to his interviewers’ disbelief, “He was a huge positive.”


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