By Leonid Bershidsky
Vladimir Putin may not actually have won 64 percent of the vote, but his victory in Russia's March 4 presidential election is providing a tough reality check for the cosmopolitan, largely Moscow-based protest movement.
The official election results show that if the Russian capital had been a separate country, which in a way it is, Putin, with 47 percent of the vote, wouldn't have won in the first round of voting. Instead, he would have faced off in a second round against billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who won 20 percent.
One reason for Putin's poor showing in Moscow may have been that on election day, polling stations in the metropolis teemed with observers – citizens who wanted to make sure the vote count was fair. An unprecedented 650,000 Russians signed up to observe nationwide, and 11,000 of them worked at Moscow's 3,380 stations. So Putin did not win outright precisely in the place where it was especially hard to distort the numbers.
I have analyzed the results of the Moscow vote, and they follow a peculiar trend: The poorer neighborhoods voted for Putin, while the wealthier ones came out in favor of his billionaire rival. Specifically, Putin's level of support in the capital's 125 districts shows a strong negative correlation (minus 0.73) with the average real estate prices in these areas, while for Prokhorov the correlation coefficient is a positive 0.75.
Moscow is by far Russia's wealthiest city, with its population earning 2.5 times the national average. Only some sparsely-populated oil-rich areas boast higher income levels. That gives many provincial Russians a powerful reason to hate the capital for its ostentatious wealth and snobbery. These non-Muscovites are the people at whom Putin aimed the main message of his campaign: Those who are against me are enemies trying to weaken or even split up Russia.
“They will not get their way,” Putin shouted to a crowd of supporters gathered in Central Moscow on the night of March 4. It is fitting that there were few Muscovites in that crowd. Most had been bused from the provinces in advance to celebrate Putin's certain victory. His official share of the nationwide vote -- 64 percent -- far exceeded that of the nearest contender, Communist Gennady Zyuganov, who garnered 17 percent. Prokhorov came in third with 8 percent.
“Candidate Putin's idea was... to occupy Moscow, a city that he quite rightly believes almost hates him,” wrote political commentator Kirill Rogov in his Novaya Gazeta blog. “That was why he flooded the city with a million soldiers and a bunch of provincials. He wanted a symbolic invasion of the city to show Muscovites that their freedom-loving Moscow does not exist. And that he owns it on behalf of some soldierly, gray Russia.”
Putin was unashamed of showing strong emotions after the first unofficial vote count came in. As he gave his victory speech, tears streamed down his face. It is impossible to tell whether they were tears of gratitude or relief. His press secretary later said they were caused by a strong wind. And his voice did not quiver as he announced, “We have won fair and square.”
To achieve a modicum of transparency, Putin had decreed that two web cameras be installed at each of Russia's 94,500 polling stations. State-owned Rostelecom filled the $510 million order, and 2.5 million Russians on March 4 watched the voting and counting in real time on a special site (webvybory2012.ru). The cameras captured dancing, lovemaking, and a crude attempt to stuff a ballot box in the southern republic of Dagestan (the vote results from that particular station were later annulled).
The impressive reality show didn't dispel the opposition's doubts about the legitimacy of Putin's victory. This time, thanks to the huge army of observers, protesters have more data than ever before to prove that the election was not fair. On March 6, author Boris Akunin, one of the leaders of the recently-created Voters' League, promised soon to release an alternative vote count based on observers' reports, uploaded to a special website. Many of the reports already on the site show discrepancies between official data from particular polling stations and the voting protocols obtained by observers immediately after the vote counting. This suggests that data were distorted by local election officials before they were sent on to Moscow for the general tally. There are also numerous reports of people voting illegally at one station after another.
“Could it be that the emperor has no clothes?” Akunin wrote in his blog. “And is he emperor at all?”
A more relevant question for the opposition is exactly what to do about the reported irregularities and about Putin's victory in general. Many of those who attended the big opposition rallies in Moscow in the last three months seemed crestfallen. Fewer than 20,000 people gathered in the capital's Pushkin square on March 5 to protest the election results, and to many of them the rally felt like an anticlimax.
“Today was our farewell to all the Putin-baiting and kidding around,” blogger Tatyana Belonovskaya wrote on Facebook after the rally, referring to the festive atmosphere of the pre-election protests. “It's time to stop having fun and start thinking and working”.
Some even went so far as to say that street protests have outlived their usefulness. “Putin has won by a wide margin,” wrote blogger Alexander Gornik, who was an observer on March 4. “There is absolutely no reason now to take to the streets. I demand that the opposition start working purposefully, that it consolidate around specific leaders, that it create parties and realistic programs, that it participate in long-term everyday struggle to win elections at every level. I demand real work.”
After the March 5 rally was over for most people, a small group remained in the square and received rough treatment from the riot police, who were out in unusual numbers. A few opposition leaders, including popular blogger Alexei Navalny, were briefly detained. Navalny, however, stayed online with cheerful tweets from the police station.
Navalny, who intends to run for president at the next election, has told me that he now plans to sit down and work out a strategy for further action. It is important for the opposition not to lose momentum now that many of its supporters are disappointed with the results of the vote and the last three months' protest activity.
“There was indeed a reason for the nation's leader to weep,” Navalny told the independent TV channel Dozhd. “We will never again see the country that he has tried to build.”
It is possible that the protests have not been completely in vain despite Putin's victory, and even though there's not much hope of forcing a recount.
“Putin is now mainly concerned with legitimizing his victory,” said political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky. “There is no question of him retaining power after 2018, and that is the major fallout from [the Moscow rallies]. I do not see a violent scenario, since the Kremlin does not feel it is legitimate enough and no enforcer wants to be spattered with blood. They are integrated into a system of economic interests in the West and they cannot spill the blood of their fellow citizens.... Everything is just beginning.”
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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-0- Mar/07/2012 16:58 GMT