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Analysis & Opinion
18.01.12 Round And Round
By Eric Sliva

If the opposition has its way, Russians will have two opportunities this year to express their opinions about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s intention to resume the presidency after a four-year hiatus. With its goal of limiting Putin to less than 50 percent of the vote in the presidential election on March 4, the opposition aims to trigger the first presidential run-off election since 1996, and to send a strong signal of voter dissatisfaction. The potential for a narrow vote margin highlights the importance of ongoing efforts to shape perceptions of electoral fraud.

The protest movement that erupted in Russia after last December’s elections to the State Duma has quickly turned its sights on the upcoming presidential contest. While the demonstration on Bolotnaya Square, the first major protest event in Russia since the early 1990s, was focused on allegations of widespread fraud in the Duma elections, some 100,000 protesters who gathered two weeks later on Sakharov Avenue had expanded their shortlist of demands to include a call for “not a single vote for Putin.”

For the fractured opposition, uniting behind popular dissatisfaction with those in power proved a successful strategy in the Duma elections, where the widespread utilization of the slogan the “party of thieves and crooks” to criticize the ruling party United Russia is considered to have contributed to the latter’s poor electoral showing. The candidates opposing Putin in March have only weak support among the population and are given little chance at besting Putin in a head-to-head matchup. Alexey Navalny, a rising star of the protest movement, demurred in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio on the question of whether he would advocate voting for one of the opposition candidates in a second round. Just achieving a run-off election, Navalny emphasized, would itself be a “remarkable” achievement.

Recent polling indicates that Putin remains within reach of an outright majority in the first round. While a poll conducted by the Levada Center in mid-December of last year pinned his support at only 36 percent, a VTsIOM poll from early January registered 48 percent of the potential vote for Putin. In comparison, the two leading opposition candidates, communist Gennady Zyuganov and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, each remained at or below ten percent in both polls.

United Russia achieved a narrow majority in the December elections, but allegations of rampant fraud delegitimized the results in the eyes of tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets. For the presidential election, the government is taking unprecedented steps to demonstrate the vote’s integrity. Shortly after the protest on Bolotnaya Square, Putin announced on television that Web cameras would be installed at each of the nation’s approximately 90,000 polling sites in order to “completely stop all falsifications.” According to a report by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the state newspaper of record, the network being built to transmit live footage on election day is designed to support 25 million simultaneous viewers. Its setup requires the purchase of 100,000 computers and the construction of additional bandwidth capacity at some localities.

Vladimir Churov, the controversial head of the Central Election Commission whose dismissal has been demanded by the opposition, went on air at Echo of Moscow on January 5 to defend the electoral process. He dismissed accusations of massive fraud in the Duma elections as oppositional “politics” and declared that “trust in the electoral system in Russia has been, is and will remain greater than in any other European country.”

The opposition is of a different opinion, and has been working accordingly to boost the ranks of election monitors. Representatives of the democratic opposition party Yabloko actively recruited volunteers for election monitoring at the December protests. One group, petitioning for monitors on the Russian social media site VKontakte under the title “Give a second round! Let’s put Putin in his place!” had gathered 1,500 members by mid-January. Andrey Buzin, the head of election monitoring at Golos, a Russian organization that coordinates the training and dispatch of election monitors, said he has registered increased interest in volunteering since the December elections. Buzin noted that the bulk of election monitors are generally passive, but that the participation of highly motivated volunteers can have an outsized effect.

Georgy Leontyev belongs to this second category. The 31-year old Muscovite works for an Internet company and was until recently apolitical, a profile typical among the protesters that have gathered on Russia’s streets since December. Leontyev’s participation as an election monitor in the Duma elections represented his first act of political engagement. It was sparked by his realization that it was “time to stop sitting on the sidelines as usual and instead to start actively following what was happening in the country.”

Leontyev recounted that his initial curiosity in the process was quickly replaced on election day by disbelief at the level of corruption in his precinct and the complicity of the majority of the election monitors, who he said turned a blind eye to flagrant violations. Leontyev and his companion, in contrast, attempted to capture video evidence of fraud and registered formal complaints in court, which were ultimately dismissed. Nonetheless, he plans to participate again as a monitor in the presidential elections, saying he believes that only a large number of motivated monitors can ensure fair elections and lead to political change.

Russian election observers will be joined on March 4 by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which boycotted the 2008 presidential elections. The final report from the OSCE monitors on the Duma elections, released on January 12, criticized the “unequal treatment of contestants in favor of the governing party” and the “undue interference of authorities at different levels.” Yuri Shuvalov, the deputy secretary of United Russia’s general council presidium, labeled the report a political instrument and “not objective,” Kommersant reported.
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