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Russia’s Once and Future President

A depressing victory for Putin.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By CATHY YOUNG
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In the end, the outcome of the Russian presidential election was as predictable as it was depressing. Vladimir Putin won, with an official tally of nearly 64 percent of the vote—more than enough to spare him the dreaded runoff—amid charges of widespread fraud at the ballot box. The question remains whether this is a lasting defeat for freedom in Russia or a last and ephemeral victory for Putinism.

Photo of Vladimir Putin

Vlad the Permanent


Given the lack of a credible opposition candidate who could unify even a sizable minority of the electorate, Putin’s victory was always assured. (It might have been a different story if the discontent that followed last December’s parliamentary vote had come a year or even six months before the presidential election—enough time, perhaps, for such a candidate to arise and mount a strong effort to get on the ballot.) Nonetheless, the Kremlin was clearly nervous about the prospect of Putin’s falling short of the 50-percent mark—something that would have been perceived, regardless of the final outcome, as a stunning vote of no confidence. Indeed, the tenor of Putin’s campaign for reelection was sometimes positively apocalyptic. 

In a televised debate on February 13, pro-Putin filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov earnestly warned that “anyone voting against Putin today is voting against Russia’s statehood, against her future.” Putin himself struck a similarly dramatic note when he addressed a throng of supporters at Moscow’s Luzhniki sports arena later that month. Quoting from the classic 19th-century poem “Borodino” by Mikhail Lermontov, a tale of the decisive battle between Napoleon’s army and Russian forces, he declared that “the battle for Russia continues” and hailed the attendees as “defenders of the Motherland.”

For all the strident rhetoric, genuine popular enthusiasm was largely lacking. The pro-Putin rallies were heavily packed with public employees as well as hired extras (some of whom apparently got stiffed: YouTube videos showed “demonstrators” upset because their contact had not shown up with the promised cash). Meanwhile, in a minor scandal, hacked emails from a leader of Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement, showed that the group had been paying people to attend rallies and post on political forums and blogs. 

In a particularly tacky Putin campaign commercial that became an Internet hit, a pretty girl told a fortune-teller that she wanted to “do it for love” because “this is my first time,” and then gasped with joy when the cards revealed Putin as her man. “It will be for love, and without deception,” the fortuneteller assured Miss First Time. The reality was quite different. Putin love seemed in short supply (in October, even before the winter of Russia’s discontent, only 3 percent of Russians polled by the Levada Center said they “admired” Putin, while 24 percent “liked” him) —and deception, by all accounts, was rampant.

A record number of voters in this election received slips permitting them to vote in a district other than their residence. In practice, this often allows multiple votes if the poll worker does not collect the slip—or if the voter is given more than one. This form of vote-rigging is colloquially known as “the carousel,” and many observers say that it was spinning at full force, with busloads of nonresident voters making the rounds of precincts. There were also cases— reported in the media, confirmed by election monitors, and in some instances caught on video—of ballot boxes being stuffed with sheaves of ballots premarked for Putin.

But did Putin steal the election, or just pad his victory margin? Probably the latter, most Putin critics reluctantly agree. An independent analysis by the League of Voters, a civic group formed in January which includes leading opposition figures and anti-election-fraud activists, concluded that Putin’s actual share of the vote nationwide was around 53 percent—well short of the official landslide, but a comfortable win. 

The opposition for the moment is licking its wounds. On March 5, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 protesters gathered on Pushkin Square to repeat the call for fair elections. While such a turnout would have been a huge success six months ago, it was far short of the 150,000 attending rallies in the past three months, a dramatic drop that was, to many, dispiriting.

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