Kremlinology 2012

Cleaning Up in Moscow

A dispatch from Vladimir Putin's election day.

MOSCOW – If you want to talk about trigger moments, you could do worse than the night of December 4. As the polls closed in Russia's parliamentary elections that Sunday, the Kremlin's polling firm FOM posted an exit poll on its website that gave United Russia, the ruling party created to support Vladimir Putin, 27.5 percent. It seemed a reasonable result: Moscow is a rich, highly educated city where United Russia, despite being backed by the full resources of the state, is virulently unpopular. By Monday morning, the exit poll had disappeared off the FOM website, replaced with an official result that bore no resemblance to the election day surveys: 46.6 percent. Moscow exploded in a rage that evening and many thousands of people came out to protest, something unheard of in the city for the dozen years of Putin's rule.

A line had clearly been crossed. After this, tens of thousands of Muscovites -- Muscovites who had up until then been indifferent to politics -- started coming out into the streets in the largest political protests Russia had seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their demands -- new parliamentary elections -- were impossible, but the one thing you heard over and over at those first protests was a sense of offense: we are not idiots. "Politicians everywhere lie," one young man in a beautiful shearling coat told me at the December 10 protest on Bolotnaya Square. "But in other countries, they do it with more finesse. It's not as crass as here."

Exactly three months and three mass opposition protests later, that lesson seems to have been utterly lost on the Kremlin -- or, worse, rudely ignored. Going into the March 4 presidential election set to restore Putin to the office he temporarily swapped out of four years ago, the going theory among the Moscow political chattering classes was that Moscow itself would have a relatively clean election, that the Kremlin would decide not to pour fuel on the fire by avoiding really flagrant election fraud of the sort we saw in December -- the ballot stuffing, the so-called carousels of voters herded on buses to vote again and again and again. After all, 82,000 of the 370,000 new election monitors who volunteered to make sure these elections were more honest than the last were in Moscow.

And yet, all day Sunday, Moscow was flooded with news of violations in the city. In part, they were the result of more eyes. In many cases, the violations were so blatant that no pair of eyes could miss them. Instead of limiting themselves to the quiet tricks they've used before -- stuffing ballot boxes before the voting begins, pressuring people at work to vote for Putin, fudging the numbers on the election protocols after the election monitors have gone home -- whoever was in charge of the operation almost seemed to have made a conscious decision to go flagrant. Fleets of buses -- workhorses of the carousels -- clogged Moscow's center. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused in, their cities of origin plastered on the windshields, to vote. (The busing got so bad that, at mid-day, the head of the Moscow Election Committee had to issue a clarification: they were just giving people rides to the polling stations, he said.)

Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, reported a large mass of voters with absentee certificates -- which allow you to vote outside your precinct -- from faraway Tambov showing up at her precinct in suburban Moscow, where she worked as an observer. These absentee certificates were this election's great innovation, giving the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once. It seemed to be a massive plan: the Central Election Commission ran out of the certificates well before the elections started. There were 2.6 million of them.

"Everyone expected a cleaner election in Moscow," says Alexey Navalny, who made his name as an anti-corruption fighter and is the opposition's most natural, if reluctant, leader. We sat in the information center organized by his latest civil society project, RosVybory, one of the many new election monitoring initiatives that sprouted up in this winter's unrest. "But these were naïve expectations, because this would have led to a second round."

Without a strong showing for Putin in Moscow, Navalny reckoned, the math just wouldn't have added up and Putin would not have gotten over the 50 percent threshold required to win the presidential contest outright, without a second-round runoff, despite the weakness of his would-be opponents, perennials of the stage-managed opposition like Communist Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and oligarch newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov. Added Navalny, "If you want results, and they want results, you need to act firmly, without hesitation. There's a sound file making the rounds on the Internet now of an electoral meeting with the governor of the Moscow region. He says absolutely clearly: our task is to get over 50 percent, do whatever you want. No one is going to punish the governor for falsifying the vote, but he will be punished for not delivering results." (Indeed, several governors in whose regions United Russia did poorly in December's elections were unceremoniously replaced by the Kremlin.)

And why did Putin not want a second round? "A second round is not cool," Navalny argued when we talked. "If you win in the second round, then you're just a politician who competes with Zyuganov. You're not a cool guy.... In the political construct he's created, you cannot show weakness. Which is why they haven't carried out the demands of the protesters that would be easy to carry out - like firing the Central Election Commission chair, punishing even the small fry falsifiers. They clearly think that if you give the protesters a finger, they'll take your arm. And a national leader doesn't behave like this."

In the meantime, Moscow filled with more special troops than I or most other people have ever seen. Special forces, interior ministry troops, military convoys at the entrances to Red Square, signal jammers, water cannons, soldiers walking around with ham radios strapped to their backs. Ostensibly, the massive presence was to secure the massive victory rally planned outside the Kremlin walls. It looked more like war, which given today's tactics, the Kremlin is likely to see in tomorrow's opposition protest on Pushkin Square: there's just less and less patience for peaceful protest in an atmosphere turning increasingly toxic.

"The last time I saw water cannons in Moscow was in 1990, when there were big protests in the city," recalls Yury Sparykin, the editor-in-chief of the media company Rambler-Afisha, and one of the organizers of the winter's opposition protests. "That means it's a good omen: only one year left."

But what a year it could be.

When Putin finally took the stage at 10 p.m. he brought Dmitry Medvedev, who had served as his placeholder president for the last four years, with him. As Medvedev spoke of a clean victory, which no one could take from them, Putin stifled emotion. Only a third of the ballots had been processed, but his projected results steadily climbed past the 60 percent mark. A tear ran down his cheek. "We won in an open and honest battle," he said, looking over a massive crowd that dwarfed any the opposition had ever summoned.

Back at the RosVybory headquarters in a bohemian café up the street from the Kremlin, Navalny mounted a small wooden stage with chessmaster-turned-opposition figure Garry Kasparov. "We have no legitimate government," Navalny said. "We have no legitimate president. He who has declared himself president tonight is a usurper." And then he called on the quiet, deflated crowd to continue their struggle.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

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