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Moscow is shining in the bright spring sun; the golden domes of its churches are a-glitter, surrounded by pure white snow; endless boutiques display the latest Paris fashions; restaurants are plentiful and expensive; numerous theaters are full, at a hundred dollars a seat for a Chekhov play. High oil prices have brought prosperity and crisis is forgotten. There’s a lot of budget money for all sorts of projects, from modern art to kindergartens to universities. Even those old sufferers, the armed forces, have got a big hike in pay.
In these rather easy circumstances this Sunday March 4 the Russians are going to elect their President. They have no economic grievances requiring desperate solutions. This is good for the incumbent, and indeed the polls indicate victory for Vladimir Putin. But all bets are off for whatever will happen the next day. Some of Putin’s opponents have already called for mass rallies and riots on Monday March 5. It’s become a tradition of sorts that the electoral victory of a government figure may lead to riots, as happened in Belarus in December 2010 and in the Ukraine in December 2004.
On Sunday there are five candidates applying for the job; a Communist, a Social-Democrat, a Nationalist, a Neoliberal, and Mr Putin. Pollsters say Vladimir Putin will receive above 60 per cent of the popular vote, so he will not need a second round run-off. However, elections are never a sure thing, and it is not impossible that there will be a second round between Putin and the second most likely candidate, Gennady Zuganov of the Communist Party, and then Putin will win anyway.
So fraud won’t necessary. Putin would likely to win even if Hillary Clinton was to personally roll up her sleeves and count the votes. However, there is a sixth candidate, call him X, who does not participate in the elections but commands many followers. His followers – they wear white, but are often and confusingly described as ‘orange’, as in the Ukraine – seized the streets of the capital in December last year, and now are likely to riot whatever the results may be.
This phantom candidate is a creation of the second and recent Putin-Medvedev swap, when Medvedev announced he would not run for a second term but would support Putin and serve as PM under him. There was a liberal camp around Medvedev, and ir had hoped that Medvedev would take a liberal course, set the jailed oligarch Khodorkovsky free, privatize state enterprises, sack Putin and become “the only European in Russia”, an enlightened ruler.
This camp has a few oligarchs ready to dish out their money in much bigger amounts than the State Department could ever manage, notably Mrs Sindeeva and her husband the banker Alexander Vinokurov, owner of Dozhd TV station, a web-portal and a Moscow giveaway entertainment paper; Alexander Lebedev, an ex-spook and billionaire, owner of the Independent of London and Novaya Gazeta of Moscow; London-based oligarch Alisher Usmanov, once a convicted criminal from Ferghana, Uzbekistan, and now one of the richest Russian oilmen, who owns the Kommersant that previously belonged to the famous London exile Boris Berezovsky.
This camp has a few think-tanks that were prominent in planning Medvedev’s reforms, notably Mr Yurgens and his fund. A few days ago Yurgens appealed to Medvedev to remain as president, and it is not impossible that some of the ‘orange’ radicals hope it may happen in any fall-out from riots. Meanwhile there are no external signs of a breach between Putin and Medvedev, so there is no candidate X actually running, but the machinery they set up is still in place.
The orange team quite successfully exploited the dissatisfaction of Moscow’s literati and new middle class with their lack of political clout in December 2011, but the public mood changed on that fateful day, February 4, 2012, when the opposition demo at Bolotnaya Moor was bested by the much larger loyalist (or perhaps anti-orange) rally on Poklonnaya Mount, as we reported in a previous dispatch. Previously, Putin had been seen as a lame duck waiting for a summary arrow; but at that day the Frondeurs discovered to their chagrin that their hold on the streets was precarious.
Now Putin has fully recovered and bounced back. After February 4, encouraged by popular support, he directed the Russian Ambassador in the UN to cast his veto on the Western UN Security council draft resolution on Syria and stopped the pending invasion. Afterwards, he unleashed seven texts published in seven newspapers disclosing his blueprint for the coming years. He promised more democracy and transparency, less bureaucracy, more prosperity for all and more taxation for the filthy rich. He threatened to ban offshore companies and to re-open the Pandora’s box of privatization.
In foreign affairs he was emphatic and certain: he asserted the traditional full sovereignty of Russia as enjoyed by this powerful state since Ivan the Third asserted his independence against the rival claimants of the Horde. He rejected the American quest for total invulnerability which, as he said, could only be obtained by the total vulnerability of all other states. Actually, this was the old script of any Russian Tsar foaming against foreign meddling. It was approvingly accompanied by pieces by Eugene Primakov, ex-PM who famously ordered his plane back on its transatlantic flight when the US decided to bomb Yugoslavia, and by Dmitri Rogozin, a Vice PM and until recently a combative Russian envoy to NATO. Putin has not been softened one little bit by all the offensive of the pro-Western forces.
The rallies and political awakening has been good for the country and good for Putin: activity and drama are likely to bring more voters to the polling booths. Huge efforts to provide visibility and transparency to the counting process including video cameras and internet broadcasting will do the same, while the attacks on Putin – in Russia and abroad – will marginalize other candidates. His position improved after February 4, when the Western media practically ceased their attacks on him.
For a while, the rebellious liberals could – and did – pretend that only the “rabble” supports Putin while all classy people stand with them. But in a striking new development – as the Frondeurs pretended to speak for the whole Russian art crowd and intelligentsia – many important Russian cultural personalities stood up in support of Putin. The favourite of the Moscow theatre-going public, Chulpan Hamatova, declared her support for Putin and so did leading film directors Shahnazarov and Mihalkov, the great conductor Valery Gergiev, along with other brand names of Russian culture. Star-studded people of integrity turned their backs on the self-proclaimed “crème de la crème”. As Vitaly Leibin, the Russian Reporter’s chief editor said: I’d rather be a commoner.
This change was well explained by Eduard Limonov, a poet and a revolutionary, a returnee who lived for years in New York and Paris, founder and leader of the radical National-Bolshevik Party. He has been in strong opposition to Putin’s regime and served a three year prison sentence for an alleged attempt to arm his followers. He eagerly embraced the liberal upheaval but became disappointed and soon parted ways with the Bolotnaya crowd. In his passionate blog Limonov explained the failure of the Frondeurs to win Russian hearts by their anti-democratism:
“They were associated with the spirit of 1991, the black year for Russian commoners, for 91-ers are considered responsible for the USSR’s break-up, for the loss of their savings, for shock therapy, for the criminal Nineties… I swear that Bolotnaya Moor attracted all sorts of people, and the middle-class were in a minority. But the bourgeois leaders in their greed granted themselves the exclusive concession on protest… They proclaimed the rising of a new class, the Creative Class, (read: Masters’ Class). They happily and self-adoringly declared themselves – lovable, creative, rich – the only force for protest . And the authorities readily agreed: ‘yes, darlings, it is your protest, the protest of the wealthy, of the middle class, just yours and nobody else’s !’ Now the whole protest wave is identified as a rebellion of pro-Western liberals. And it was isolated, as became evident on February 4.”
A few days before the elections, Putin appeared at a huge rally in the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. Its strength was estimated at about 150,000. The stadium was full, a lot of people stood in the arena and many thousands could not get in. Putin appealed to Russian patriotism; he spoke softly. There was none of the expected fire and brimstone. Though electorally, it makes sense to stress the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’, Putin did not, carefully building the foundation for civil peace after the elections are over.
Will he get it? The X electorate is still there, implacable as ever. Mme Sindeeva’s newspaper promises the results of the elections will trigger vast demos, blood will be shed and the despot will be overturned. This is also the view of Sergei Kurginyan, the initiator of the anti-orange demo on Poklonnaya Mount. On Wednesday, leaflets appeared in Moscow, calling for mass protests on March 5, against future falsifications of the elections, with one slogan: Down with Putin.
The majority of my informants doubt their ability to cause much trouble. Life is too good now in prospering Russia, and these would-be rebels are used to the good life. To quote Limonov, in order to beat the government or even to extract concessions one needs people “with clenched jaws and frowning brows. The perfumed Parfenov, pink pants-clad Troitsky, and syrupy Ulitskaya won’t do.” We shall know the answer soon.
Israel Shamir has been sending dispatches to CounterPunch from Moscow. He can be reached at email@example.com