The anti-Putin rally planned for Moscow today will have to defy a state of siege organised by an undemocratic, authoritarian regime that weighs rather than counts the votes cast in presidential elections.
Vladimir Putin may have been “elected” as president of Russia for the third time, giving him six more years in the Kremlin, but his victory is tainted because no one believes he got nearly two-thirds of the vote.
Since replacing the transitional figure of Boris Yeltsin, the ex-KGB man has built a regime that is the political mouthpiece of the oligarchs who carved up the former Soviet Union after it was brought down in 1991.
Human rights and democratic niceties have been cast aside in favour of top-down Kremlin rule that sees journalists killed, free assembly discouraged and public sector workers bussed into pro-Putin rallies.
Today Moscow is surrounded by 12,000 police and troops with Omon riot squads patrolling pavements and underpasses, sometimes three deep. Sub-machine gun carrying troops have encircled the state Duma, Russia’s toothless parliament.
The heavy policing is needed because Putin’s election victory is rejected by large sections of the Russian population.
After the election fraud revealed in December’s parliamentary elections led to widespread demonstrations, the regime put on a big show of electoral transparency by installing webcams in polling stations. But vote rigging, dirty tricks and violations were taking place at other, more decisive, levels.
Lawyers who challenged the December election results discovered that votes were often cast in an orderly fashion and then counted by the local precinct committees. But then, at polling station 1181 for example, when the results were entered into the national database they were some 23% higher than those originally counted. A similar pattern had emerged throughout the country according to mathematicians studying the results.
Radio stations like Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo), who have refused to toe the Putin line, are now being threatened with a crackdown. Other news and media outlets are experiencing pressure from the authorities.
And while opponents of the regime, like anti-fraud campaigner Alexei Navalny, are making use of Twitter, the regime is not missing any dirty tricks. A fake Twitter account was created for the US Ambassador Michael McFaul. Russia Today television tried use this to discredit those who challenged the election results.
And what of the other candidates?
The only parties allowed to stand constituted no real alternative to Putin. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who came in a distant second with around 18% of the votes, is an unreconstructed Stalinist and nationalist. Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky believes in white supremacy and has advocated hitting villages in Chechnya with tactical nuclear bombs. Sergei Mironov, of the A Fair Russia party, has endorsed Putin’s presidency and has no independence from the regime. The only other contender was playboy billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. No threat to Putin then.
With “alternatives” like that, it’s questionable whether election fraud was even that necessary!
Independent candidates who threatened to be a real alternative were stopped from standing. In one town, Lermontov in the Caucasus, 13 people went on hunger strike late in February to back up their demand to be put on the ballot paper.
There are those who espouse the Kremlin line, denouncing the opposition as largely western influenced and/or the city-dwelling middle-class Twitterati. But the hunger strikers in Lermontov, as well as protesters in other far away places like Kovrov, 264 kilometres from Moscow, show this is not the case.
The movement against the regime is widespread as shown by the 10-mile long ring of people who defied sub-zero temperatures to join hands around Moscow on February 26 in a pre-election show of solidarity against the regime.
The outcome of Sunday’s election was a foregone conclusion. But everyone knows that Putin’s 64% “victory” is contrived from start to finish. His is a tarnished and shaky power. The election will go down in history as illegitimate. How the opposition will now find strength, new leaders, policies and organisations to move forward to a Russian spring is the real challenge.
A World to Win secretary