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International Affairs Editor

Russia's post-vote riddle: What is to be done?

Le 08-03-2012

It's been three days since Russia's crack riot police, the OMON, hauled off the country's leading opposition figures into police vans after they refused to disperse peacefully following a boisterous rally on Pushkin Square, in central Moscow.

Since then, the detainees - including Russia's pre-eminent anti-corruption blogger, Alexei Navalny, and Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov - have been released.

Undeterred by their brush with the fearsome OMON, they are busily planning an encore performance this coming Saturday.

There's even been talk of pitching Occupy Wall Street-style tents on the Kremlin's doorstep.

But for all the defiant talk, Sunday's election already appears to be fast-receding in the rear-view mirror of Russian politics.

The authorities, backed by the state-controlled media, are mounting a concerted campaign to strike a business-as-usual tone - with the tacit blessing of the United States and Europe, whose leaders have offered a qualified endorsement of the Russian people's will.

From fraud to flowers

This Thursday, March 8, is International Women's Day, a national holiday that Russia inherited from the Soviet era, marked by festive family gatherings and a flurry of last-minute flower purchases (the default gift) by creatively challenged males.

In the New Russia, "metrosexual" husbands even swap traditional roles with their wives, offering to do the housework and clean the dishes.

(There's actually a male equivalent of this holiday - Defender of the Fatherland Day, observed on February 23, which has become a catch-all celebration of male "valour" - even those men who never gave a thought to lifting a finger to defend the Fatherland.)

The mostly state-controlled Russian media has seized on Women's Day as a welcome diversion from politics.

That said, there is little doubt Saturday's rally will happen. The most likely staging ground will be the New Arbat, provided City officials grant the necessary permits.

Keeping the momentum

Yet already, many Muscovites are looking beyond the immediate protest calendar, and asking whether a fractured opposition can sustain the momentum needed to keep Vladimir Putin on his toes.

The final tally of Sunday's vote by Russia's Central Election Commission had the Kremlin strongman crushing his closest rivals, perennial Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, and newcomer billionaire, Michael Prokhorov, with 63.6% of the vote.

The citizen-led, non-governmental League of Voters, has Putin on 53%.

That number reflects the League's best guesstimate of Putin's true score after accounting for the widespread allegations of violations that marred the election.

These included instances of multiple ballot-casting and block voting, under duress, by workers in state enterprises who were reportedly frog-marched to polling stations.

Even more swagger?

But there's a caveat here. Even after accounting for all the alleged violations, Putin still seems to emerge as the undisputed victor.

And this stark political calculus has added to Putin's swagger.

In his teary-eyed (his aides insist it was the wind) victory rally to throngs of flag-waving supporters, Putin hammered home his message that the outcome was not only legitimate, but a sign of Russia's growing political maturity.

He later dismissed the Pushkin Square protest - which was punctuated by cries of "Russia without Putin!" and "Putin is a thief!" - as an emotional outburst by a bunch of attention-seeking upstarts.

Putin didn't hesitate for a second to resort to the same forceful methods he used after last December's parliamentary elections to break up Monday's democratic protest.

It's a signal he feels emboldened in the election aftermath, and more inclined to make short shrift of the mostly young, middle-class protesters whom he regards as a subversion - or worse, a perversion - of the true will of the Russian people.

Navalny has laid down the gauntlet to the powers that be, proclaiming: "We will not get tired of coming out on to the streets. We will not go away."

Like Poland in the 1980s

Yuri Korgunyuk, a political analyst, believes not going away should be the focal point of the opposition strategy.

In reported comments, he likened what's happening now in Russia to the imposition of martial law in Poland in the 1980s.

The general felling in society at large, Korgunyok said, never changed. "It was anti-Communist from the outset, and it continued like that until the government fell. It took them eight years, but I think it'll be quicker for us."

But Russia's anti-Putin brigades have a Sisyphean struggle ahead in a country where most citizens in the vast hinterlands are hard-pressed to name a single opposition leader.

In 1901, a revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin wrote a political pamphlet in which he posed a simple question: "What is to be done?"

His answer was to form a "vanguard" of the proletariat to spearhead an upheaval in society.

More than a century later, Russia's opposition is in search of a new vanguard.