Feature

Russia: Surprise! Putin wins election

Vladimir Putin was pronounced the winner of the presidential election with an implausible 65 percent of the vote.

Of course there was fraud, said Alexander Minkin in Moskovsky Komsomolets. Vladimir Putin was pronounced the winner of the presidential election this week with an implausible 65 percent of the vote. A good chunk of those votes came from rampant “carousel voting,” in which busloads of voters go from polling place to polling place, casting ballots under different names. Confronted by monitors, bus passengers “behaved like thieves caught in the act, hiding their faces, refusing to speak.” And only outright ballot stuffing can explain the preposterous results from Chechnya. Putin is hated there as the author of years of bloody war, yet he somehow managed to get more votes than there were registered voters. Still, the extent of the fraud is the issue. Some 70 million votes were cast, and Putin claimed about 45 million of them. For him to win outright in the first round he needed 35 million, or 50 percent. So the real question is, were more than 10 million votes fraudulent, which would invalidate the win? Probably not.

That’s because, while the opposition doesn’t want to believe it, many Russians still really do support Putin, said Stanislav Kucher in Kommersant. Some love him. Some value stability over all else. Others simply weren’t inspired by the opposition candidates. The two tired, perennial candidates, Communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, hold little appeal. But the real, liberal opposition didn’t have its act together either. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov seemed to be playing the stooge role of “pseudo-opposition candidate,” while Sergei Mironov simply wasn’t taken seriously. The fact is, if the fraud were really so outrageous, “people would be coming into the streets by the millions.” And they’re not.

But they may yet, said Nikolai Petrov in The Moscow Times. Putin had to work a whole lot harder to rig this vote. The “blatant electoral fraud” in the Duma vote of December, in which Putin’s party won a large majority despite being behind in all independent polls, woke Russians up and sent hundreds of thousands of them into bitterly cold streets to protest. The Kremlin learned its lesson, and the fraud was much more sophisticated in this week’s presidential election. Rather than simply stuffing ballot boxes, authorities used carousel voters and absentee ballots. Still, the Kremlin has yet to respond to protesters’ demands for transparency and democracy. “This probably means that the protests will increase in size and intensity.”

How will Putin rule over such a restive population? asked Moskovsky Komsomolets in an editorial. He can’t simply “tighten the screws.” The bitterness in Russian society is so intense now that only a massive crackdown on protests and civic organizing could crush it. Putin would have to “turn Russia into a larger version of Belarus.” This he isn’t prepared to do. Putin knows that “bloody repressions” would hurt Russia’s economy and influence abroad. So the most reasonable option for him is to “get out in front of the change,” and implement gradual political reforms on his own terms. He’ll have to loosen the screws gently, of course—nobody wants a repeat of the anarchy that characterized Gorbachev’s perestroika. But reform is inevitable. Russia is growing up.

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