By Jeffrey Tayler
For Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a question both personal and political has arisen: Whom were they booing?
Earlier this week, Putin showed up at Moscow’s Olimpiysky Stadium for an event that should have been a patriotic photo op: Congratulate Russian martial artist Fyodor Yemelyanenko for beating American Jeff Monson. Instead, according to the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomlets, he was heckled by many in the crowd of twenty thousand. Just after Putin walked onto the ring, “it began. The whistling and ululations didn’t cease until the former Russian president concluded his speech.” (To watch the incident, check out Live Journal’s posted video clips.)
Moskovsky Komsomolets left little doubt about the nature and target of the hecklers’ ire: “When Putin handed the microphone to Yemelyanenko, the spectators switched from anger to kindness and welcomed the Russian fighter by chanting his name.”
Supporters of Putin, who is expected to win presidential elections next March, saw things differently. Dmitri Peskov, the premier’s press secretary, told Interfax that “it was entirely obvious that all those disapproving cries and ululations were directed at the match’s loser.” Match attendee and blogger Kristina Potupchik, an activist for the pro-Putin youth group Nashi, attributed the negative outcries to “22,000 bladders filled with beer," according to Rbc.ru. "Gentlemen, you should go to the bathroom in advance,” she wrote, adding that in her opinion “people were yelling and whistling with joy.”
In one sign that Putin viewed the Olimpiysky incident as an expression of discontent , he failed to show up as scheduled at an anti-drug concert held a couple of days later in the same stadium, reported Rbc.ru. He was wise to stay away. According to the Moscow Times, the gala, organized by a former Kremlin official for the charity Federation, “did not go down well, either. At some points, the crowd at Olimpiisky started chanting, ‘Yes to drugs.’”
The same paper pointed out that both Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev have rescheduled their public appearances until after State Duma elections on Dec. 4. Analysts have speculated “that poor performances could strengthen United Russia's ratings slide, which has gathered momentum in recent months.” Their party's approval rating stood at 51 percent this month, down from a high 68 percent in October 2007, according to the well-reputed Levada Polling Center.
Meanwhile, concerns about electoral fraud persist. The newspaper Kommersant reported that Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov has lodged a formal complaint with Public Prosecutor Yury Chayka, noting that the “mass use of administrative resources meant to impinge on the rights of opposition parties” is gaining momentum. Specifically, he said, voters are being bought, unfair conditions are being created for United Russia’s rivals, and efforts are underway to discredit opposition parties.
What are opposition voters to do? The Moscow Times laid out some options: Vote for United Russia's opponents, spoil the ballot, take the ballot home or boycott the elections altogether. Anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny favors the first choice, because “whatever the shortcomings of the opposition parties, every seat they get in the Duma weakens United Russia's grip on power.”
Veteran liberal politician Boris Nemstov advocates spoiling the ballots. "It's the only variant that leads to a cancellation of the elections." The vote can be pronounced invalid if more than 40 percent of ballots are defaced.
Left Front chief Sergey Udaltsov declared that “boycott is the only option left," though the newspaper noted that the move can’t void the elections because "the minimum turnout threshold was canceled in 2006.”
What about just taking the ballot home? This would result in “denying support to all candidates, but ensuring [that the ballot] is not used in vote rigging.” While this would appear to be legal, Vladimir Churov, the chairman of the Central Elections Commission, has termed the ballots “state property” and warned that they should not be removed from polling premises.
The important thing, the article concluded, is to vote. "A small turnout is beneficial for United Russia because those who stay at home are usually the party's opponents who are too apathetic or disillusioned to come.”
Some are planning to monitor the polls directly. In an interview with the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Sergey Mironov, chairman of the social democratic party A Just Russia and a State Duma deputy, announced that his party “has trained a hundred thousand [election] observers” who will cover “all polling stations without exception.” He also called a high turnout “the main weapon” against electoral fraud, though he hopes that the authorities “will be afraid to massively falsify” the vote. After all, “the next elections are for the presidency. The government’s legitimacy is very important. If we don’t want events to unfold according to the North African scenario" – that is, a popular revolt – “the elections have to be confirmed as honest.”
Faced with falling approval ratings so close to the polls, what tactics will Russia’s leadership adopt to ensure electoral victory? In response to the United States’ plans to build a missile defense in Europe, Medvedev, reported Interfax, issued orders to “immediately deploy a missile defense radar system in Kaliningrad . . . strengthen the protection of [Russia’s] strategic nuclear forces. . . and equip strategic nuclear missiles with long-range anti-missile-defense devices.” He added that Russia may specifically target the U.S. anti-missile system.
Will raising the specter of a new Cold War rally Russian voters behind the ruling tandem and ensure its political survival? On Dec. 4 we may find out.
(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)
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