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Opinion:
Douglas HERBERT

Douglas HERBERT
Foreign Affairs Editor

Bogus ballot: Putin voters in a foul mood

Le 01-12-2011

As Russians prepare to trudge to the polls for Sunday’s parliamentary elections, a proletarian quip of Soviet times past comes to mind: “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”

In this sham election masquerading as democracy, the slogan might be revamped to say: “They pretend to govern, we pretend to vote.”

Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party is sure to trounce the smattering of token opposition forces.

Despite this, the Putin people are having pre-electoral night sweats.

This explains why Putin’s campaign rhetoric has reached a xenophobic fever pitch. And why the Kremlin’s shock troops are out in force on the eve of the vote, making sure nothing (or as little as possible) gets in the way of a resounding mandate.

Election monitoring is one of those things that Russia’s kleptocrats fear could “get in the way” of a chest-thumping triumph on Sunday.

Two-thirds majority or bust

Putin’s propaganda guru, Vladislav Surkov, is therefore pulling out all stops to ensure that Putin’s pesky opponents remain just that - pesky, and not potent.

A two-thirds majority, such as United Russia currently enjoys, is the minimum required to give Putin’s party the bragging rights to tweak the constitution as it sees fit.

Eagle-eyed election monitors are a potential hitch.

The Moscow Times reports that Russia’s only independent elections watchdog, Golos, has accused the NTV channel of trying to smear it and thereby prevent it from doing its job on election day.

Golos, which means “voice” in Russian, has thousands of activists in 40 regions.

They plan to monitor the voting on Sunday, and the counting of the ballots on Monday.

Golos’s deputy chief, Grigory Melkonyants, told the newspaper that men brandishing microphones bearing the logo of the NTV channel stormed into his offices on Monday.

They reportedly shouted questions such as “What is your organisation doing?” and “Are you getting money from the US?” Read: the CIA?

In another era, NTV was a widely respected news outfit, known for its unvarnished investigative reporting from Chechnya.

In the age of Putin, it has morphed, along with most of Russia’s media, into a pliant vassal of the Kremlin.

Today, it is owned by the state-controlled energy behemoth, Gazprom.

Golos is transparent about where it gets its funding: USAID, the British Embassy in Moscow, and the EU.

Don’t mess with us

That makes it instantly suspect in the eyes of Russia’s xenophobic rulers, who see foreign agents of subversion wherever they look.

Putin has embraced the “Western saboteur” theme with Cold War gusto.

Just this past weekend, he warned the West not to mess with Russia’s elections, as he accepted his party’s nomination before throngs of cheering devotees.

The message was calculated to rouse Russia’s nationalistic rabble at a time when United Russia knows that its support is increasingly wobbly.

The ‘booing revolution’

More alarming to the likes of Surkov, the presidential propagandist, polls show Putin’s appeal waning as the realisation sinks in that Russians may be stuck with the guy well into the 2020s.

Russia’s leading pollster, the Levada-Center, says Putin stands to lose the two-thirds majority in the lower house, or State Duma, that allows it to pass laws untrammeled by any opposition.

Levada says United Russia’s popularity rating was shaved by nine points between February and November, dropping from 60 to 51 percent. A more recent poll shows the party’s rating languishing at 39%.

United Russia, according to Levada’s prognosis, could end up with a majority of only 28 seats in the 450-seat chamber.

“What was once easily classifiable as public apathy has quickly fermented into a very palpable dissatisfaction, and it is one that is increasingly breaking through the surface, even in places where it is not expected,” writes Julia Ioffe in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine.

Ioffe cites the so-called “booing revolution”, which has seen United Russia heckled and jeered at the mere mention of its name, from hockey matches to rock concerts.

In the most striking case, Putin himself was the target of some high-decibel derision from 20,000 spectators at a martial arts fight in a Moscow stadium after he climbed into the ring to congratulate the Russian victor.

A defiant Kremlin spin doctor tried to explain that the crowd was actually jeering the defeated American opponent. Except they weren’t; they were booing Putin. State television edited away the boos. But the video became a viral hit on YouTube.

The Central Election Commission is also being enlisted to shore up United Russia’s base. It issued an order banning campaign ads by opposition parties.

The Vedomosti newspaper cited anonymous Kremlin sources as saying the order had been arranged by Putin’s office. What really transpired remains unclear.

The Putin youth

Beyond Moscow, the Kremlin relies on a well-oiled patronage network to get out the vote.

Le Monde recently reported on a recruiting drive by pro-Putin youth workers in the provincial town of Voronezh, 467 kilometers (290 miles) southeast of Moscow.

The young party workers are given access to schools that the opposition could only dream of.

Government largesse is doled out based on local politicians’ ability to get out the vote – for United Russia.

To be sure, Putin is, and will likely remain for some time, the paramount figure in Russian politics.

But while many Russians may be politically apathetic, they are anything but naïve.

A mock, Soviet-style election poster circulating on the Web parodies United Russia’s approach to democracy. It shows a stern election official holding out his hand as he bars a voter from casting a ballot.

“No!” reads a warning in red letters. “Stay at home, we will fill out your ballot for you.”

This Sunday, many Russians may do just that.

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