Despite Putin’s seemingly overwhelming victory, independent observers reported voter fraud and the Russian opposition continued protesting in Moscow and other major cities. International leaders were wary in offering their congratulations to the president-elect.
The numbers diverge
As the Russian Central Election Commission reported on March 5th, the turnout for the presidential election was at least 5% higher than for the parliamentary in December 2011. As a result of this increase in civil activity, Vladimir Putin gained 63.8% of the votes, thus proving to the world that he didn’t need a runoff election. His opponents got significantly fewer votes: Gennady Zyuganov (the Communist Party) picked up 17.2%, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov 7.98%, Vladimir Zhirinovsky (the Liberal Democratic Party) 6.23%, and Sergei Mironov (Just Russia) 3.85%.
Still, some of the numbers should have been disappointing for Vladimir Putin, who was so excited at his victory that he even shed tears at the rally in his support at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow. (Later his spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that the tears were caused by the wind). In fact, Moscow was the only region where Putin got less than 50% of the vote. In the capital of Russia, which also happens to be the heart of the opposition movement, Putin garnered 46.9%, while Mikhail Prokhorov, a rookie politician, received 20.4%. Prokhorov also got strong support in St. Petersburg, winning 15.4% of the vote, and in Yekaterinburg, 18.7%.
Vedomosti called Prokhorov’s results symbolic, saying they reflected some important shifts in public opinion. “The protests that began in the wake of the parliamentary election last December greatly impacted the number of Russians voting against Putin. The other candidates taken together, making up a bit over 36%, represent the anti-Putin vote. Mikhail Prokhorov polled at 7.98% and came in third. This was a symbolic victory. Despite being a new candidate with a patched-together political program, no backing from a political party, and essentially without an electorate, Prokhorov came in third.
The North Caucasus once again proved to be Putin's major stronghold. Chechnya reported the highest margin of victory with 99.7% for Putin; Dagestan gave him 92.8%, Ingushetia and Karachayevo-Cherkessia — 91.3%. But these results, topping 90%, raised plenty of questions about fraud.
Observers Report Violations
Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) questioned Mr. Putin’s victory, saying that although there was less ballot-stuffing and other blatant falsification that marred the parliamentary elections in December, Putin had faced no real political competition and had unfairly benefited from government spending on his behalf. "The biggest problem with this election is that there was no real competition. It was not a level playing-field. Abuse of executive power, as well as the inappropriate use of administrative resources, ensured that the ultimate winner of the elections was never in doubt. We would like to underline that according to our assessment, these elections were unfair," said an OSCE spokesman on Tuesday.
Russian activists, too, maintained that the results would have been significantly different without fraud. Golos, an independent watchdog organization, reported that Putin won about 50.7% of the vote, 14 points less than the official result. The League of Voters, a recently formed public organization, said that a lot of their reports reflected discrepancies between the data collected by League observers and the official figures.
Naturally, Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission, denied all accusations of fraud and argued that the webcams and transparent ballot boxes made Russia's process fairer than voting anywhere else in the world. He even offered help to the United States to ensure the legitimacy of this November's U.S. presidential election. Speaking on NTV on Thursday, he said that Western countries that do not introduce these measures “will face lingering doubts about their elections.”
The Opposition Doesn’t Give Up
On March 5th, thousands of antigovernment protesters gathered in Moscow to chant “Russia without Putin.” “When the riot police demanded that the crowd disperse after a couple of hours, many refused to leave. The police then swept up the blogger Aleksei Navalny, the most charismatic figure to emerge in this wave of activism, and dozens of other activists and pushed them into police vans. The police said 250 people had been detained, though many were released early Tuesday morning,” reported Ellen Barry of the New York Times.
In English the most rendering description of Moscow March 5th events was given by Julia Ioffe, in a two-page Foreign Policy article entitled This is how you elect the F*cking President?: "Ponomarev climbed up on the granite fountain in the center of the square, where Navalny, Udaltsov and a few others joined them. A small crowd of supporters — almost all male — stuck around, too. When the police started shouting at them to clear out, Navalny's bodyguard commanded the crowd to form a tightly packed chain around him, and the young men at the bottom of that snow-filled empty fountain joined up. Riot police started to sweep the square and drag people into armored vans: holding pens on wheels. Then the police descended into the fountain, snatching links out of the human chain, one by one, and dragging them to the side of the fountain, and hurling them, like sacks of potatoes, over the red granite border. 'Hey! Toss the next one!' one of the cops waiting up there giggled in delight."
According to eyewitnesses, after clearing the area around the fountain, the police took to dispersing the journalists around Pushkinskaya Square. Protesters retaliated by blocking traffic on Tverskaya Street for 15 minutes. When police broke their ranks, Sergei Udaltsov, head of the socialist opposition group Left Front, called protesters to sit down and lock arms in efforts to slow the officers' progress through the crowd. "People fell to the asphalt, many hitting their heads and staying down, screaming in pain. When possible, their comrades pulled them out," writes Moskovskij Komsomolets.
Even more people were detained after a similar event in St. Petersburg, where the rally had not been sanctioned by local authorities. In his article for openspace.ru, Dmitry Simanovsky described the brutality with which the OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Unit) arrested peaceful protesters. “The cries of "Shame!" and "Russia without Putin!" grew louder and louder. The events that followed resembled a chemical reaction: the OMON attacked the masses, and those who didn’t have time to disperse were caught and literally pressed against the wall before being escorted to a van. The arrests were brutal, officers even used force on women who resisted. They showed no more respect for the elderly.”
Despite the lower number of protesters (there were at least 80.000 at the rally on February 4th) and the aggressive actions of the police, opposition leaders have already scheduled the next rally for March 10th. Kathy Lally of the Washington Post also pointed out that the newly-formed opposition had been forced to make tactical decisions before it had a chance to solidify a long-term strategy. “And now its members have split on a basic question: Do they follow the limits on protest set by the authorities or do they push back?”
The World Reacts
On Monday night, as the police rounded up the leaders of the latest protest rally, the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador in Russia, Michael A. McFaul, posted a message on Twitter: “Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin Square. Freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are universal values.” Republican Senator John McCain was far more straightforward and sarcastic in his reaction when he tweeted: "Dear Vlad, Surprise! Surprise! You won. The Russian people are crying too!"
Late Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement that it “congratulates the Russian people on the completion” of the presidential election. But, as of late Tuesday night, President Obama still had not called Mr. Putin to personally congratulate him. However, at a press conference on that afternoon, Mr. Obama acknowledged the result, mentioning that a G8 meeting in May at Camp David would “give him a chance to spend time with Mr. Putin, the new Russian president,” the New York Times reported.
President Obama was not alone in his reluctance to speak to Putin. Many Western leaders also refrained. Catherine Ashton, foreign policy chief of the European Union, said in a statement that Russia should address the shortcomings of their election process. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister and a member of the European Parliament, called Putin's win “the nail in the coffin of Russian democracy.” Two exceptions were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who congratulated Putin by telephone, and friend and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. “Putin is the right leader for Russia today. He has played and still will play a crucial role in his country’s fate,” Berlusconi told Corriere della Sera.
Overall, international response to Vladimir Putin’s victory reveals a general frustration with his return as Russia’s president and Russia’s neglect of basic democratic principles. Though he is enjoying his moment now, in a very short time, Putin will have to face a lot pressure not only from abroad, but from growing domestic opposition.
As The Economist concluded in their editorial article: “If he [Putin] cannot bring himself to reform the state or the economy, if he cannot harness middle-class desire for change, if he cannot see the demonstrations as anything more than a threat to be contained and crushed, then the prospect for President Putin’s next term is grim indeed: protest, disillusion, repression and economic stagnation. Russia would be diminished, and so would its leader.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
*[This article was originally published by Institute of Modern Russia on March 7, 2012].