Contrary to international reports, protests have not rocked Moscow. But an ongoing post-mortem into December 4's parliamentary elections sees them fall deeper into disrepute, and there is now the potential for a mini "Russian Winter" in the capital.
International reports of troop-defying mass protests in Moscow are a huge exaggeration. While the day after the elections saw a largeish 5,000-strong rally in downtown Moscow protesting electoral fraud, Tuesday's protests of 500-1,000 people were disbanded by police, and overshadowed by a 2,000 strong pro-Putin rally by the youth organisation Nashi.
But an ongoing analysis of the conduct of the elections, including whistleblower accounts of vote-rigging, mean the Duma vote is sliding deeper into disrepute. With international voices raised against the vote, and Moscow's blogosphere debating a protest strategy, there is the potential for more protests as the country moves towards presidential elections in March, which are likely to see Vladimir Putin return to the presidency.
The Associated Press goes today where no pressman has gone before in running an extensive anonymous interview with a chairman of an Moscow precinct electoral commission. According to this chairman, his workers stuffed ballots all day Sunday, but it still was not enough to get the desired result for Putin's party United Russia: so he talked the problem over with his commission and the decision was reached that United Russia would be given 65% of the vote, with some compensation votes being redistributed to the Communists.
The chairman also told AP that election workers had been trained on how to stuff ballots quietly, and demonstrated how to fold a stack of 30-50 ballots in half, hide it under a jacket and slip it noiselessly into the ballot box.
According to the official, in Moscow the four main parties of United Russia, Liberal Democrats, A Just Russia and the Communist Party, negotiated how many votes each would get in district precincts: United Russia initially wanted 68 to 70%, but eventually settled for around 65%. The actual United Russia vote for Moscow was a lower 45%, but an exit poll conducted by FOM polling organisation put the United Russia vote at only 25% in Moscow.
Overall, United Russia polled 49.6%, 16 percentage points down from their result in 2007. The result surprised many with the extent of United Russia's drop in vote, despite the obvious use of electoral fraud. The result also seemed to be broadly in line with nationwide opinion polls and exit polls.
The AP report tallies with numerous anecdotal reports and also internet video clips showing instances of apparent egregious electoral fraud, especially in Moscow - demonstrating how the internet in Russia has become a force to be reckoned with.
The Putin/Medvedev administration is showing signs of nerves, with Interior Ministry troops reported moving through Moscow December 6. A small attempted pro-democracy protest was broken up by riot police yesterday, and it was the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi that had the numbers holding a rally attended by 2,000.
Following the initial protest of around 5,000 in Moscow on Monday, international voices including US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and EU High Commissioner Catherine Ashton spoke up to criticise the Duma vote.
Deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov, seen as the grey cardinal of Russia's "managed democracy" system, seems to be losing his grip or sliding into self-parody. In response to the protest mood in Moscow, he suggested founding a new party for discontented city-dwellers.
The electoral rot in Russia set in big time with the Duma elections in 2007. In hindsight, there was clearly a target set for United Russia to achieve a constitutional majority of two-thirds in the Duma. The plan was to subsequently change the constitution and in 2008, the Duma duly voted to extend presidential terms of office to six years and Duma convocations to five years. This then paved the way for Vladimir Putin to return to the Kremlin as president for up to an additional 12 years in 2012, after the four-year pro-forma interim presidency of Dmitry Medvedev.
Shortly before the 2007 elections, in a shock decision long-serving and highly respected chairman of the central electoral committee Aleksandr Veshnyakov was replaced by the current bearded wonder Vladimir Churov. Churov had no prior experience of organising elections, and has shown himself to be a slave of United Russia, which has largely merged with the electoral commission. Both United Russia and the electoral commission are directed by the Kremlin's Vladislav Surkov.
There is little doubt that Vladimir Putin still has a core support among the population of about 45%. But there is a growing disgust at the Byzantine manoeuvring and fraudulent votes perpetrated to get him back in office for 12 years in 2012. Putin may have finally 'jumped the shark' and lost his media-backed reputation among ordinary Russians as an honest broker and straight shooter. The blatant involvement of his entourage in the corruption and insider dealing that is so rife in Russia may also void his reputation as the man who ousted the oligarchs from the Kremlin.
In particular, the apparent sharp drop of support for United Russia in Moscow and corresponding surge in electoral fraud there may light a fuse among the capital's politicised blogosphere. The result might be some new protest movement emerge in the capital this winter, as the country moves towards presidential elections in March.
Putin will return as president, but will it be for a further six or 12 years?
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