Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Show of democracy in Russia

The Russian presidential election is going to be held on March 4th. The victory of Victor (Putin) is a foregone conclusion. The only question is whether he's going to with in the first round by getting more than 50% or he will have to go through the run-off process. Considering Putin's popularity (and some inevitable ballot stuffing) remains over 50% chances are we will win in the first round. In fact, last Friday (February 24th) the head of Russia's leading independent pollster Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, told reporters that the runoff is unlikely because Putin is likely to receive 63 to 66 percent of the vote in the first round.

I don't have to go far to explain the nature of the problem. Both of my parents have Russian citizenship and will vote. For whom? Anyone but Putin. His nearest rival polling at around 15% is the Communist Party's candidate Gennady Zyuganov. So, even the distant second to Putin is completely unacceptable. By eliminating any real opposition in a field like this, democracy can be managed.

The Russians are familiar with the reality of Putin's inevitable reelection. So, why do demonstrations by the opposition continue to draw hundreds of thousands?

Because some Russians have had enough of Putin. Even Gorbachev has called for Putin not to run: "Three terms is enough" is a common rallying cry of the opposition. That includes Putin's two original 4-year terms and his interim term as a Prime Minister. That makes it 12 years (of Putin in power) down, and potentially 12 more to go (the new constitution has 6-year presidential terms).

Caption: United Russia
They are stealing your vote!
Still, one month before the elections, on February 4th, over a hundred thousands rallied in Moscow against Putin. The protest -- which drew 120,000 people, according to organizers -- was the third mass demonstration since Putin's party won a parliamentary election Dec. 4 with the help of what appeared to be widespread fraud.

In addition to being hopelessly fragmented, the opposition seems to be naive and amateurish in its approach. Putin has had over a decade to consolidate power. He has mastered the use of Roman strategy to "divide and conquer" as well as modern methods of demagoguery.

I envision Putin irked by the incessant call for democracy by the West. "You want to see democracy in Russia? I'll show you democracy," his actions seem to be saying.

The opposition has its demonstrations. Putin has his demonstrations. Granted, he had to pay civil workers to come to demonstrations in defense of the status quo and his re-election. (The irony is that there there were these rallies included a lot of students, who desperately needed the money, because they have not received their stipends for January yet). The opposition meetings drew tens of thousands, and pro-Putin demonstrations draw as many - at least according to the Moscow police, whose salaries Putin doubled in December. The police claimed as 138,000 people attended the rally exceeding the 15,000 approved by the city, so Putin paid $33 fine for having more people than scheduled at the rally.

There were anti-Putin demonstrations on wheels - cars decorated with anything white driving around the Moscow circumference road in January and early February. Then Putin's camp organized a pro-Putin demonstration-on-wheels on February 19th.

Saint Petersburg, where only 34% (including any potential fraud) voted for United Russia in elections last November, had a rally in support of it's native son, Putin.

Opposition has blogger activists, like Alexei Novalny. "United Russia" has blogger activists. It pays them, too. The Pro-Kremlin youth organisation "Nashi" (meaning "Ours" in Russian) pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to network of internet users to help their political cause as reported by the Guardian. Navalny told the Guardian: "These strategies, what they do on the internet and how they gather protests, are very similar. [Nashi's] main problem is that they don't have real people who are ready to say something in support of them. They don't have one person who supports them for free. So they pay."

The flag reads "Young Russia". The group is scheduled
to rally in  front of a notorious Lubyanka prison.
The opposition has scheduled a demonstration on March 5th. So, has a pro-Putin group "Young Russia". The pro-Putin group got a permission to demonstrate in the center of Moscow, in front of Lubyanka. This site is very ironic, because it has been the center of Soviet secret police activity for years. It was a notorious prison where confessions were beaten out of political dissidents. The Russian FSB - the successor to KGB, still uses the building. It seems ironic that these young people are demonstrating in front of this symbol of a police state. Did the organizers not realize that the location makes "We support the police state" the message of this demonstration, or do they simply not care?

Meanwhile, Putin warned against post-election violence from the disgruntled opposition. According to Putin, the opposition is bought and paid for by the West. This Monday Putin has penned a newspaper article blaming the State Department for protests that have erupted on the streets of Moscow, and accused Washington of “political engineering” or interference in Russian elections. In other words, the opposition is illegitimate, and its potential cries about lack of fairness is a provocation for unrest.

As some writers have aptly described it, two Russias will collide in Sunday’s Presidential election. It's a contest not unlike the competition between the paid professionals, such as NFL Superbowl Champions and your neighborhood football league. If such a gave was broadcast, you'd turn off the tube, because the result is so predictable, and quietly hope the amateurish underdogs don't get hurt.

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