Kremlinology 2012

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election?

Once again, it all comes down to Putin versus himself.

MOSCOW – About a year ago, when I kicked off this column, nothing seemed more boring or futile than writing about the Russian presidential election. There was only one question you needed to answer to unlock the whole thing: Would Putin return from the prime minister's office to run for a third presidential term or not? (Which is why we called the column "Kremlinology 2012.") Once Putin decided who was running -- himself or his protégé-turned-President Dmitry Medvedev -- then we would know who was going to sit in the Kremlin, at least until 2018. So it all seemed to come down to Putin, who was often spoken of as the country's only real voter.

In the year since, so much has happened -- the grand swap between Putin and Medvedev announced in September, the suspect parliamentary elections in December, the mass street protests ever since -- and some things have even changed. Yet, in essence, not much is really different: Going into the March 4 presidential election, everything is still up in the air and only one man -- the same man -- can decide how to bring it all down again. But even though we now know the answer to who is running and who will win, there are even more unknowns still to reckon with.

Yes, Putin will win, and he will win with a comfortable margin, but it is wholly unclear how accurately that will represent the popular will. In the hall of mirrors that has been the last month of opposition protests and loyalist counter-protests -- not to mention car rallies and counter car rallies -- it's become hard to gauge where Russian public opinion truly lies. According the latest polling done by the independent Levada Center, 66 percent of those planning to vote say they will vote for Putin. Not bad for a leader facing a wave of street protests.

But if you look more closely at the numbers, Levada sociologist Denis Volkov says, they show something else. Over the summer, when it was unclear which of the two top leaders would actually be running, Putin had 23 percent and Medvedev had 18 percent. More than 40 percent of Russians polled said they wanted the two to run against each other. Then, when that option was taken away on Sept. 24, Putin's number shot up. "People are rooting for the winner," Volkov told me.

On Sunday, many people will vote for Putin not only because they think he's the predestined winner but also because there is no one else to vote for. The Kremlin's two-pronged strategy of first slashing and burning the political playing field and then bemoaning the lack of real competitors -- it's a shame, Putin once said, that his fellow democratic leader Gandhi is dead -- has worked quite well. As it stands now, Putin faces Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist clown who has been the Kremlin-sponsored spoiler for over two decades; old Putin friend and Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov (you can see just how bad a candidate he is from this campaign ad); and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, about whose independence there are serious doubts. Putin's most serious rival, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, resembles nothing so much as a smooth woodcarving. In my utterly unscientific surveys of people at Putin rallies in Moscow and traveling around Siberia last week, support for Putin split roughly in half between the "we-love-Putin" camp and the "got-any-better-ideas?" camp. The liberal-leaning opposition, loud and present and plentiful in the capital, is simply far less energized out there in the great Russian hinterland, where just over half the votes are.

Regardless, on Monday morning, Russia will wake up to its old-new president Putin, and that evening Muscovites will take to the streets in protests, both for and against. The Moscow mayor's office has made a serious concession and allowed the opposition to gather at Pushkinskaya Square, in the heart of Moscow. But some in the opposition are talking of marching downhill to the Kremlin and forming a white circle around the old red walls. Will the authorities crack down? How many more times will city leaders grant permits to the organizers after March 5? How much stomach will Putin have for more protests once the campaign is over and won and he has to go back to running the country?

Speaking of which, how will Putin interpret the mandate he receives this weekend? Will we see a shift toward a more pluralistic Putin, a Putin capable of coalitions and concessions, or will we see a retrenchment, a caricature of the old Putin, a blustery, salty KGB-type who rules by fell swoops and diktats, a ruler to whom the people must bow? Will Medvedev, promised the post of prime minister, be allowed to continue to play the (sort of) liberal good cop? Will the Kremlin's political concessions in the face of these protests -- the return of gubernatorial elections and easier party registration procedures -- have legs, or even teeth? Or will Putin continue tightening the screws by cracking down on independent media and opposition activists?

And what of those long overdue economic reforms? Putin's campaign promises to raise pensions and fly Russian soccer fans to the European Championships for free could cost something like $161 billion. It's a price tag that pretty much requires oil in the $150 a barrel range in order for the Kremlin to keep its word. That or Putin would have to raise taxes, or the retirement age -- anathema to his populist policies and to his core electorate, which depends on such fiscally contradictory largesse.

What Putin decides to do come March 5 is "the central question, not because Putin decides everything in politics on March 5 but precisely because he can no longer decide everything himself," says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked on Putin's 2000 presidential campaign but was fired by the Kremlin in the last year. "It's become a very complicated scene." The way Pavlovsky sees it, there are two possible paths: modernize and reform the political system or "play the tsar." The first option is the more difficult one, but should Putin choose the second door, Pavlovsky predicts, "He'll become a prisoner of his own system, completely out of touch with reality, locked in the Kremlin and with his minions ruling in his name. And this is the worst possible outcome."

For now, it seems Putin can't quite make up his mind. On Thursday night, he met with the editors in chief of major European newspapers. He was calm and confident while monosyllabically turning down the opposition's demands of new parliamentary elections. But just days before that, at a rally of supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, he screamed into the microphone of blood and sweat and meddling foreigners. It was a strange and angry speech, bizarrely out of sync with the wearily festive mood of the people who had come out to hear him (some willingly, some not). Moreover, those who had come had come in peace. Everyone I asked at the pro-Putin rally -- without exception -- said they didn't mind the opposition protests. "Everyone has the right to their own opinion," the refrain went. And then Putin talked to them of blood and dying to save the Motherland. From whom? "It's a strange, sudden turn, not really motivated by anything," argues Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It's not his usual tone. His personal campaign is a lot more subtle. It's a little savage, and I think it speaks to a certain unevenness, a nervousness."

Increasingly, however, Putin's rhetoric seems to point to something a little worse than a case of nerves. On Tuesday, at a meeting of his National People's Front, Putin spoke of the opposition, saying bluntly that they would have to "submit" to the choice of the majority and avoid "imposing" their views on the majority. This kind of zero-sum language would seem to preclude dialogue. Putin followed by bizarrely speculating that his increasingly desperate opposition will end up searching for a "sacrificial offering" from its own ranks. "They'll whack [him] themselves, excuse me, and then blame the government," he said. This kind of talk doesn't leave much room for hope; if anything, Putin seems to be encouraging the radicalization of the still amorphous opposition against him. Already, anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who helped launch the protests, has been calling for an "escalation," and some of his activists were arrested on Wednesday for trying to hand out tents: Navalny wants to see a repeat of the great campout in Kiev after Ukraine's rigged 2004 presidential election -- the one that led to the Orange Revolution, as well as to Putin's obsession with "color revolutions" being plotted all around him.

The Putin I've come to know in writing this column for the past year is a leader who, when presented with two options, tends to pick the easier, if often far stupider, of the two, especially in a tense political atmosphere. All spring and summer, the political scene in Moscow stagnated and soured as the city waited for Putin to make up his mind: Would he stay or go? When he finally revealed his decision in September, it was a stunning one, simply because it came out seeming so shortsighted and reckless and blunt.

"It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted," Putin's chronicler, the journalist Andrei Kolesnikov told me that day as we both stood slack-jawed in the stands following Putin's announcement. "We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it's so obvious." He was in disbelief, despite the obviousness, because he, like many others, had hoped that Putin was capable of a better, wiser decision. When the protests exploded in December, Sasha, half of the duo behind KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter political satire, ruefully pointed out to me that if Putin had let Medvedev stay another term, "none of this would have happened." And I think he's absolutely right.

Would it be foolish to hope that, come March 5, Putin will see his mandate with the nuance the situation requires? To hope Putin has learned that political compromise and political strength can coexist? To hope that, for once, Putin takes the more difficult but ultimately more productive route of reform? Or would it be more prudent to see what's hiding in plain sight? Again. Says Pavlovsky: "I just hope he doesn't send us to war with Tajikistan."

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Kremlinology 2012

Tightening the Screws

It might be just coincidence that Moscow is messing with opposition media as a shaky Putin looks toward the elections, but it’s beginning to look a lot like a nasty pattern.

MOSCOW – About a month ago, after the marred parliamentary elections and the December protests shook Moscow, after everyone went away for the New Year's holiday, and after everyone came back, 27-year-old Duma deputy Robert Shlegel decided to do some digging. This enterprising young man, a star of the pro-Kremlin youth Nashi movement, was curious: Who, exactly was financing these opposition protests?

"There was lots of information floating around; were these protests financed from abroad? Were they not financed from abroad?" Shlegel explained the other day, referring to the claims put forward by prime minister and presidential frontrunner Vladimir Putin -- and then picked up by the loyalist information network -- that the protests were provoked and financed by the U.S. State Department. Shlegel found an interesting, if not totally bizarre, way to investigate. He decided to look into the financing of Dozhd, or Rain TV. This independent, internet-and-cable network, staffed and watched mostly by urban hipsters -- though nobody really knows how many of them ever actually tune in -- has provided unalloyed and often openly sympathetic coverage of December's events. When the protests first broke on Dec. 5, and no one knew what to make of them, Dozhd simply aired a live stream, first of the rally, then of the violent arrests. Compared to the intensely filtered, hard-spun statist agitprop -- if not utter silence -- on state television, Dozhd naturally came to be seen not as the "optimistic channel," as per its logo, but as the opposition channel. Obviously, the views of its staff, many of whom showed up at the protests decked out in white ribbons (the symbol of the protests), play a part.

But that's not what Shlegel was after. "When I looked into how the technical side of the protests was financed, I thought: either Dozhd financed the protest organizers, or the organizers could've helped Dozhd cover the protests," Shlegel explained. I couldn't quite follow his logic, but he went on. "Are these things financed from abroad, or not? This is a politically sensitive issue." It was, he decided, a question for the prosecutor's office. "If you're going to be the conscience of the nation," he said, "why are they hiding where they get their funding?"

So a month after the protests temporarily died down, Shlegel filed a request with the federal prosecutor's office, which, in turn, asked Dozhd for its editorial charter and tax documents, among other things. But Shlegel was looking for more -- and late last week, Natalia Sindeeva, Dozhd's owner, tweeted that she had received an urgent and detailed official request for all kinds of financial documentation. Because Dozhd had been the subject of official pressure back in December -- the government agency overseeing the legal compliance of the media demanded to see all that live footage from those two violent days, Dec. 5 and 6 -- this latest request naturally caused a stir.

But Dozhd isn't alone in being the recipient of unwanted attention. Two days prior, Ekho Moskvy, the opposition radio station, came under attack by its state-affiliated owner, Gazprom Media, which owns two thirds of Ekho Moskvy's shares. Gazprom forced a shake-up of the station's board, ousting founder and editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov along with four other board members, including two affiliated neither with Gazprom Media, nor Ekho. "This is a signal, certainly," Venediktov said in special broadcast after the news broke. "I don't see anything catastrophic in this, but it is unpleasant and I certainly see this as an attempt to adjust editorial policy." And while Venediktov tried to downplay any sense of looming catastrophe, and Gazprom Media denied any whiff of carrying out Kremlin orders, it was hard not to recall what had preceded this event: About a month ago, Putin, at a meeting with prominent editors, lay into Venediktov, accusing his station of "covering me in diarrhea, from morning 'till night."

Now, Putin is certainly a man who backs up scatological rhetoric with action, but there is something else at play here. Ekho Moskvy did not start dumping liquid feces on the premier just recently; it has been doing so for a decade. It was known as the Kremlin's window dressing, the thing it could point to and say: "See? Freedom of the press! And on our dime, too!" Neither Ekho nor Dozhd are marginal outlets: High-ranking officials regularly grace both studios. Their chiefs -- Venediktov and Sindeeva -- are consummate players of Russia's political game and have intimate knowledge of the couloirs of power. Sindeeva is friends with the oligarchs; Venediktov gets birthday greetings from Putin.

Indeed, for a time, Dozhd was President Dmitry Medvedev's new media darling. He once visited the studio and even Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, used Dozhd as a way to wink-wink with the liberal opposition, admitting to them that Putin may not have actually discovered those ancient amphorae while he was scuba diving in the Black Sea.

But an increasingly shaky Putin is just weeks from a presidential election. Window dressing for the West is the last thing he needs right now, and he certainly doesn't need Ekho using his government money to become a revolutionary hub -- which, as Michael Schwirtz noted in the New York Times, is increasingly the case. The same can be said of Dozhd, and the other two publications that have come under state attack during this turbulent winter: Kommersant Vlast, and Bolshoi Gorod (the latter also owned by Sindeeva).

And so the screws are being tightened. The tightly monitored federal channels, which in December dared to push the envelope, have come under the gun. As I reported in my last column, NTV was swept clean of an upstart editorial team and Channel 1 has decided to freeze all shows with the merest hint of socio-political themes. Last week, Anne Nivat, a well-known French writer, was kicked out of Russia for meeting with opposition figures for her upcoming book. A bank where anti-corruption activist and protest politician Alexey Navalny has an account, received an official visit from the Bank of Russia and Navalny's account was "checked." And, earlier this week, Ksenia Sobchak -- the daughter of Putin's late political mentor, glamorous it-girl turned opposition journalist -- finally felt the pinch, too. Her new show on MTV Russia, "State Department with Ksenia Sobchak," was canceled after one episode. "I don't know what happened," she told me. "They paid for four shows -- they paid the production company, they paid me. But I invited on Navalny. I think it was a political decision."

Maybe it's just coincidence? Maybe MTV executives decided that a music video network wasn't the best place for a political talk show. Maybe, when a day after the Ekho Moskvy board shake up, a summons from the prosecutor's office landed on Venediktov's desk, it really was, as it was claimed, spurred by complaint from a strange man in far-away Tambov who took issue with a radio station's editorial charter. Maybe it was simply the ranting of a man with too much time and too few marbles. Maybe the police and immigration officials trailing Nivat were simply over-enthusiastic cogs showing initiative. The fact that she was allowed to return over the weekend, after an override from higher-ups in the Federal Migration Service, indicates that this is probably the case. And it is probably the case with Shlegel's inquiry, too.

Sobchak, however, is not buying it. "I hope it's connected just to the election campaign, and that after the election they'll relax a bit," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't think that's the case. I think the government has decided on a course of clamping down."

Either way, at a certain point coincidences stop being coincidences. And overzealous minions are suddenly hyperactive because they can clearly read the writing emblazoned on the wall: We are tightening the screws. "I don't think it's over. On the contrary, we're seeing a well-defined trend," says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky. "I think it will get stronger and I think it is intended to put the media in a stricter framework after the election." It is one, he posits, that will rely increasingly on legalisms and technicalities -- as well as American-style claims of "immoral" programming -- to keep the media in line. "I don't the system will be as personalized. It doesn't need a single conductor. The conception will be a loose, sticky legal framework where they can contest you on an increasing number of judicial points." This means it won't matter if you're state-owned or, like, Dozhd, indpendent, especially if we see more of the kinds of things we've seen of late: pressure on Internet providers, on boards of directors, on owners. And the brilliant thing about it? "None of these are censorship."

As for Shlegel, he insists that his initiative was not intended to be a PR stunt or to coincide with the Ekho Moskvy mini-scandal. "I just wanted information," he said, flustered. He noted that 800 people had already called him that day to harangue him about his perceived attack on Dozhd. "I'm always really lucky when it comes to such things. I couldn't have found a better moment," he said. "Of course, I'm being sarcastic."

ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images