During state television’s coverage of the aftermath of the announcement of less than a third of the counted ballots, Vladimir Putin was adoringly shown visiting his election bunker and party headquarters, warmly embracing the director Nikita Mikhalkov in the process. Minutes after Pervii Kanal felt enough of his recited poetry, windswept tears and growling allusions to invisible provocateurs had been drilled into the ordinary viewer, it began to broadcast 12. A critical sensation upon its release five years ago, Mikhalkov’s adaptation of Twelve Angry Men, depicting a convened jury’s ruling on the murder case of a Russian officer, his Chechen stepson standing accused, was interpreted by many as a mature approach towards the Chechen conflict, or rather more far-fetchingly as a ray of sunshine for modern Russia. Even Putin praised it, though this was less of a surprise given the open backing he has long enjoyed from Mikhalkov, despite the latter conceding his admiration for Mikhail Prokhorov’s sister during an absurdly staged debate between the two candidates’ “trusted representatives.” Whatever Mikhalkov’s political convictions mean to me, or my suspicions at the latter undertones of his acting role as the leading juror, I could readily draw themes such as the rule of law, fairness and tolerance, free and reasoned debate, from my interpretation of the film. My despair for the degradation of such values in today’s Russia, only further entrenched by the evening’s developments, made my third viewing of 12 feel intensely macabre.
Vladimir Putin won with a thumping 63% of the vote and averted the unlikely humiliation of a second round, or so we are led to believe. There is little point in me needing to amply justify my scepticism of the results’ validity, nor the implausibility of his ostensible popularity rating, given the mounting evidence of carousels, huge surpluses of ballot papers, a grossly abused system for alternative voting papers (I was spooked to see Yaroslavl make the third page of Monday’s Novaya Gazeta, for a clumsy operation led by local Putin supporters to contract young professionals from the rural fringes to order hundreds of alternative ballots from the local electoral commission) and Caucasus-style irregularities and inflations, alongside depressingly familiar reports of employer pressure to make the “right choice.” The transparency of the vote count was deemed to have been a slight improvement on December’s shambles, in no small part because of the ring to 90,000 webcams being installed the length and breadth of the country, magnifying one or two selective cases of fraud as in Dagestan. But in its Wednesday edition, citing the findings of independent observers and civil society organisations, Novaya Gazeta claimed up to 14% of Putin’s vote had been entirely fabricated. And if the OSCE election observation mission, with only 160 observers deployed to impossibly cover 90,000 polling stations, described the vote counting at a third of those it was present at as “bad” or “very bad,” in an otherwise customarily sanitised election review, what of the 89,000 or so remaining stations deprived of its vigilance? The utter monopolisation of media resources and access, distinctive blurring of official and electoral responsibilities on one candidate’s part and refusal to register seven other candidates, had already enabled a contest bereft of any competition, ambition and transparency, a non-election by all means.
What awaits us for six years, as of May 7th, is all too predictable. A leadership bankrupt of all vision and purpose, self-serving in its pursuit of the protection of an amorphorous and unaccountable network of personal assets. A leadership that for eight years, riding high on the booming demand for its natural resources, failed to thoroughly modernise the country’s political and judicial institutions and invest in adapting its obsolete economy and infrastructure to the demands of the 21st century, shaping a society distinctive to that pockmarked by the greed and ravages of the 90s. A leadership all too ready to paper over its inadequacies with cheap populism and warnings of an Orange Revolution in the making, in vogue some seven years later. As Kirill Rogov aptly wrote in Monday’s Novaya Gazeta, of an electoral platform meekly sustained on articles in seven different newspapers, “there were no theses there, other than one…I must stay, nothing else matters.”
That is not to say that Vladimir Vladimirovich is short of admirers, in all probability the country’s most popular politician as his election tally suggests, despite him failing to legitimately thus demonstrate. In no small part because of a state propaganda machine churning out daily blog rolls of his ostensibly prime ministerial activities, but fundamentally cultivating the image of a “good tsar” and his “bad nobles,” independent of United Russia and its “thieving and swindling” local bureaucrats and politicians, the source of so much discontent at the parliamentary elections. Tellingly in Yaroslavl, Putin polled 55% while the United Russia mayoral candidate yielded a mere 27% (a second round will be held in two weeks, the independent candidate securing a credible 40%), just under the party’s 29% share in the region in December, its worst across the country. Outside of the largest cities, with lower internet penetration, and where economic opportunity is both comparatively lesser and more so dependant on the bare decisions of United Russia-dominated local administrations, Putin’s popularity is understandably higher. And particularly so at these elections, against the backdrop of a reinvigorated opposition, the bedrock of his support rallied on the basis of two, unconvincingly rhetorical statements: 1) Putin is a guarantor of stability; 2) Who else is there to vote for? The first claim, as hollow as it appears in a country festering on DRC and Guinea-Bissau levels of corruption, steadily multiplying since the 1990s and with particularly personal entanglements, perilously vulnerable to a new oil and capital shock alike to that a few years ago and experiencing torpid growth ever since, and still reliant on brute force and intimidation to quash fantastical internal forces and an again increasingly volatile Northern Caucasus, will inevitably be deemed ever more vacuous as the clamour for alternative media grows. If Medvedev’s bill on political parties goes through its last hoops in the Duma, and opens up the stagnant political field, the second statement may also become ever less relevant.
A week is a long time in politics, none so more in the aftermath of the presidential elections. The decisive consensus is that the elections were fairer than the last, and the web cameras, artificial victory margin and state coverage have sold that well. World leaders have bought into it, and the election observers’ usual findings of “progress, but still work to be done,” heard after every election in Russia, encourage no further progress. The opposition has been demonised for planning a protest before election day and hounded for contesting “the cleanest election in Russian history,” and unable to compete with a muzzled media landscape, in danger of losing its vitality.
When Russians took to the streets in the weeks after the December 4th elections, the momentum for political reform was with them, a window of opportunity emerging before the March elections. Now that the deadline has transpired, and none of the rallies’ demands been met, the call for “fair elections” both at Pushkinskaya and Arbatskaya is beginning to stale. In fact, if the bill for revamping the existing political system does indeed pass, what will become the very purpose of the opposition?
Now is the time for the opposition to drop its short-termism, and dig in for the long haul. Of all the talk of easing registration rules for parties and modernising the political landscape, few have gone as far as to call for a new constitution or fundamental rethink of the institutional powers in this country, as Lilia Shevtsova poignantly reminded before the Sakharov rally. It is not enough to simply demand Vladimir Churov’s dismissal, but to press for the establishment of an entirely independent electoral commission, fully in line with continental standards. As Lenoid Parfyonov stressed at the first Bolotnaya protest, slagging off state television as a “zombie box” will do nothing to improve its representation of society, and Navalny’s recent comments on creating a “universal propaganda machine” are a small step in this direction. Vladimir Milov, though on the fringes of the mainstream protests for his feuding with Parnas, has at times proved a necessary critic, highlighting the unpopularity of the old guard of Nemtsov, Kasyanov and Yavlinsky, ever-present at the rallies. A younger breed of activists in Navalny, Yashin and Chirikova, with a touch of celebrity dust in figures such as Parfyonov, Shevchuk and even Sobchak, could rise to a thinner, fresher and more consolidated frontline, while the old heads go about forming their “mega-parties” with the likes of Prokharov. Four large rallies and a string of flash mobs will not bring down Putin, Milov’s advice for returning to “old school political work” and even Khodorkovsky’s urge to engage bureaucrats and civil servants, a number of whom may well be sympathetic to the protestors’ demands, worth considering.
Politics may be returning to people’s consciences, but in a country where living and working conditions continue to lag behind the developed world, it is rarely an individual priority. Alexei Polikovskii, in Wednesday’s Novaya Gazeta, wrote “I have been at all the meetings, but I have still not heard a word from the stage about the need – for the entire country – of a wage index in case of inflation, about rip-off prices, lowly pensions, and miserable wages. They promise freedom, but not good wages.” As revealed by Levada’s poll of the Sakharov crowd on December 24th, most of those gathering in the streets of Moscow would admit to economic concerns of their own. Navalny’s “thieves and swindlers” line may have touched a chord with them in December, but submerged in all its political connotations, the essence of his anti-corruption crusades has taken a back seat. To produce a truly defining alternative to Putinism, a new socio-political construct must be aggressively advocated, promoting a new vision for society and its economy, all but lacking for the past two decades. It is this, with the help of an emerging new media, which may begin to win over the provinces, wary of the opposition’s demands and any hint of progress. History tells us that radical change has necessarily been realised at the heart of the country’s political life. But to remove the Putinist system, with significant support across the country and particularly outside the capital, the opposition discourse must be further broadened, diversified and fundamentally amplified, rendering it relevant beyond Moscow.
Democratic change across society and the political establishment will not come overnight. The last few months have confirmed the discontent with the regime, and removed many of the previous inhibitions in expressing such sentiment. But society remains passive, distrustful and unassociated, Vladimir Ryzhkov estimating some 85% of Russians remain unaffiliated to any form of organisation, despite a surge in grassroots initiatives. The battle for the hearts and minds of the entire country, not just Moscow and free elections, begins now. Russia simply cannot fall for Vova’s tears.