Commentary Magazine


The Crumbling Spectacle of Putin’s Russia

The absurdity of this weekend’s Russian presidential election began in earnest on Sunday, when a Twitter account claiming to be that of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted at an identical Twitter account claiming to be that of Michael McFaul, accusing the latter of being fake. One of the two accounts obviously was fake, but it was difficult to tell. The real account’s name is @McFaul; the fake one used an uppercase “i” at the end. On Twitter, the two letters are identical.

But the scene–in which the real McFaul tweeted at the fake McFaul “This is a false account. You all obviously know I dont write that well in Russian!”–was the bizarre beginning to a bizarre election day. The fake account even tweeted some early criticism of the Russian elections, leading a pro-Kremlin television anchor to criticize the American interlopers who apparently didn’t even have the decency to wait until the elections were over to cast doubt on the process.

Welcome to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, 2012.

The rest of what took place yesterday, however, wasn’t quite so entertaining–though it was just as typical of what Putin has wrought:

And yet, all day Sunday, Moscow was flooded with news of violations in the city. In part, they were the result of more eyes. In many cases, the violations were so blatant that no pair of eyes could miss them. Instead of limiting themselves to the quiet tricks they’ve used before — stuffing ballot boxes before the voting begins, pressuring people at work to vote for Putin, fudging the numbers on the election protocols after the election monitors have gone home — whoever was in charge of the operation almost seemed to have made a conscious decision to go flagrant. Fleets of buses — workhorses of the carousels — clogged Moscow’s center. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused in, their cities of origin plastered on the windshields, to vote. (The busing got so bad that, at mid-day, the head of the Moscow Election Committee had to issue a clarification: they were just giving people rides to the polling stations, he said.)

Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, reported a large mass of voters with absentee certificates — which allow you to vote outside your precinct — from faraway Tambov showing up at her precinct in suburban Moscow, where she worked as an observer. These absentee certificates were this election’s great innovation, giving the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once. It seemed to be a massive plan: the Central Election Commission ran out of the certificates well before the elections started. There were 2.6 million of them.

The point of all this flagrant ballot fixing was to ensure Putin received more than 50 percent of the vote (he was eventually credited with 63) to avoid a runoff. A runoff would put Putin on par with his “rivals.” I put “rivals” in quotation marks because of another facet of Putin’s Russia: he wasn’t really running against anyone. Sure, there were other candidates. In addition to independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, Putin beat out Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This was the most highly anticipated Russian presidential election since 2000, when Putin beat out Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the more liberal-leaning Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

That election enabled Putin to officially succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin, who himself had an action-packed presidential election in 1996, in which he beat out… Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Grigory Yavlinsky.

It’s safe to say, then, that most of the non-Putin votes were protest votes. And speaking of protests, as I write this about 14,000 people have piled into Pushkin Square in Moscow, and many more are expected to show up for today’s protests. The scene–and it’s still early, as Sean Guillory, who tweeted this picture, notes–looks something like this:

Expect that crowd to grow. As I said last week, Putin is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, in which not even the comfortable, educated middle class are interested in his authoritarian circus. The election was an embarrassment to them–as were December’s rigged parliamentary elections, as are the Kremlin’s puerile pranksters, who are believed to have been behind the fake Twitter shenanigans. Luke Harding says the question for those in Pushkin Square is “how to bring about the end of the regime?” A better question might be, how to facilitate the crumbling that has already begun?

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