It came as little surprise that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won Russia’s March 4 presidential election, but the fact that he received over 63 percent of the vote was unexpected. To be sure, the Kremlin had launched a huge propaganda effort on Putin’s behalf, and the four other candidates on the ballot, including billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov (who represented no party and had no clear platform), hardly offered viable alternatives. But Putin’s popularity had been eroded following December’s disputed parliamentary elections, and recent large-scale protests had called into question the continued strength of his support. In fact, there are multiple indications that the Kremlin has again manipulated the outcome. If these reports are correct, they suggest Putin is playing a dangerous game, since the widespread perception that December’s elections were fraudulent was what brought tens of thousands of Russians into the streets in the first place.
Once again, the elections have been followed by protests, and some independent observers estimate that had it not been for electoral fraud, Putin would have received slightly under 50 per cent of the vote, forcing him into a second round against the runner-up, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who received an estimated 17 percent of the vote, ahead of Prokhorov, who came in third. Putin could have doubtless won that next round, but such a contest would have done serious damage to his already compromised credibility.) These observers suggest that as much as 14 percent of the ballots may have been falsified. In addition to the usual tampering when votes are tallied, there were widespread reports of “carousel voting” in which busloads of pro-Putin voters were driven around to cast multiple ballots at different polling places. (Voting irregularities and the disputed election count have been discussed in the Russian press by political commentator Dmitry Oreshkin and journalist Evgeniya Albats) According to Martin Dewhirst, a veteran observer of elections in the former Soviet Union who I spoke with in London, carousel voting is a firmly entrenched practice in Russia.
And while Putin has managed to pull off a win, some Russians believe that it will prove costly for him in the long run. Among them is Marina Litvinenko, widow of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who died an agonizing death in November 2006 after being poisoned by polonium in London. She told me the day after the election that she thinks the results will turn out to be a “punishment” for Putin. Ms. Litvinenko, who is now a British citizen and resides in London with her teenage son, still has her Russian passport, and decided to vote for the first time with an absentee ballot at the Russian Embassy. She firmly believes that Putin gave the order for her husband’s murder—and cast her own vote for Prokhorov, whom she admires because of his success as an entrepreneur and his devotion to political causes. Yet she is philosophical about the election outcome: “People will have no more illusions about Putin. He will continue to be in the spotlight and that means that the accusations against him will not go away.”
Ms. Litvinenko has a point. In declaring himself the number one, exclusive candidate for the Russian presidency last September, Putin opened up the door to unprecedented public criticism of his leadership. Hard as it would have been to imagine even a year ago, one of Putin’s most vocal critics, Boris Nemtsov, who has documented extensive corruption by Putin and his cronies, even appeared recently on state-owned Russian television and also was invited to participate (along with a group of other democratic politicians) in a meeting at the residence of President Dmitry Medvedev. Apparently the Kremlin decided to allow democrats like Nemtsov to speak out in order to provide a safety valve for the mounting resentment of Putin. And Russian authorities, in the run-up to the election, also permitted the opposition to stage very large demonstrations, the likes of which have not been seen since right before the Soviet Union collapsed.
While Putin could not hold back a tear or two of joyous relief after the results of the presidential election were announced, no one, including Putin himself, seems to believe that Nemtsov and others will go away. In fact, the nervousness of the Putin camp is evident already. On the evening after the election, when riot police and internal troops (numbering some 12,000 with a helicopter hovering overhead) confronted a crowd of around 20,000, who were peacefully protesting Putin’s re-election on Pushkin Square, they reacted excessively, arresting over 250 (including the famous anti-Putin blogger Alexei Navalny and Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov) and beating up some in the process. Although the detainees were later released, such violence is bound to backfire and arouse more protest.
Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov defended the police action, saying that it showed a “high level of professionalism, legitimacy and effectiveness,” signaling that the government would show no hesitation to use force again on protesters. But journalist Evgeniya Albats had the opposite impression: “It is clear that the information asphyxiation [in the Kremlin] knows no limits, if the press secretary suggests that it is normal for people to be beaten up on the street in the center of the city. These people were doing nothing but standing there and talking.”
Even if Putin’s electoral victory was genuine (and that will continue to be a matter of dispute), it would not necessarily reflect how people feel about a leader when they have only one choice. What matters more is the extent of the democratic opposition to Putin, how far this opposition will go, and what the Kremlin’s reaction will be.
In a further indication of how staged the whole process appears, Putin has promised to appoint outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev to be his prime minister after he becomes president in May. Of course, since Putin served as prime minister “under” Medvedev for the last four years, this cosmetic switch seems to confirm for many that nothing has really changed at the Kremlin. Retaining Medvedev, who continues to play the role of mild-mannered liberal in contrast to Putin the steely-eyed pit-bull, may prove useful to Putin, as he comes under pressure to carry out reforms promised following December’s protests.
Curiously, Medvedev has just announced that he has instructed the Russian Prosecutor’s Office to re-examine the legality of the imprisonment of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was given a second sentence on corruption charges in 2010. Khodorkovsky is viewed as a political prisoner by most Russian democrats—and by western observers—so his release, along with that of his partner Platon Lebedev, and several other such prisoners, would be a major concession to Russian human rights advocates.
But Khodorkovsky has long been one of Putin’s fiercest critics, so it is hard to imagine that Putin would allow his release before his prison term ends in 2016. In all likelihood, Medvedev’s comments are simply intended as a diversion to assuage voters who are disillusioned by the prospect of six (and possibly twelve) more years of Putin as president. Boris Nemtsov, for one, is convinced that the current president does not have enough powers to insist on the release of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. “The criminal case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will not be retried,” he said this week, “because this is beyond the authority of Medvedev, and his instructions to the Prosecutor General’s Office are nothing but an efficient gesture to cool down the wave of public protests over the presidential elections.” Such gestures may also be intended to improve the Kremlin’s image in the international community, including the United States, amid distinct tensions in East-West relations over Middle East policy and Russia’s concerns about Western interference in its domestic politics.
Although most Western governments apparently find it more convenient to accept the election results, particularly given the need for Russia’s cooperation on Syria and Iran, cooling down domestic opposition might not be as easy as the Kremlin hopes. New demonstrations are planned in Moscow and other cities for March 10. And if they seem threatening to the Kremlin, there may again be recourse to the same strong-armed tactics the authorities used a few days ago.
Putin made a perfunctory promise to look into the allegations of vote fraud, but he dismissed Monday’s opposition protests as having no relation to his election. He apparently has no strategy for addressing the mounting discontent with him among the urban, middle-class elite, whose support is crucial for his government to retain its legitimacy. Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, the respected independent polling agency, predicted this week in Izvestia, the Russian daily, that although overt signs of domestic unrest might subside for awhile, opposition to Putin can only grow: “There are very many people—over one-third [of the population], 35 percent—who do not recognize these elections as being legitimate. A wave of indignation will rise up.”