In a televised address, Putin urged voters to back United Russia, warning that the liberal opposition would return Russia to the “humiliation, dependency and disintegration” it suffered after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian Parliamentary “elections” are being held this Sunday, with Putin’s United Russia Party set to steamroll the opposition.
His valor is extolled on billboards across the nation, and his daily feats dominate the television news. At a keynote election speech last week, his handlers even showcased a shimmying girl band singing an ode to that heartthrob in the Kremlin: “I want a man like Putin, full of strength!”
Thousands of candidates are vying on Sunday for seats in the next Parliament, but the election is really about only one politician, President Vladimir V. Putin. After steadily securing control over Russia since taking office in 2000, Mr. Putin has transformed the election into a vote of confidence on his leadership and on the nation’s economic recovery, and he is throwing the full weight of his government and party machine into the fight.
Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are sitting this one out. Problems with the visa paperwork, or something like that. Employees are told by their bosses “Vote for United Russia or else…” and members of opposition parties beaten and thrown in jail:
Opposition parties have been all but suffocated by strict new election laws, scant television coverage, curbs on their ability to organize and criminal inquiries. Workers at government agencies and companies that receive state financing said they were being exhorted by their bosses to pull the lever for Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia.
A professor in Siberia named Dmitri Voronin, for example, said in an interview today that he and others at his university had been repeatedly called in by administrators and told that if they did not vote for United Russia, they would be dismissed.
Prosecutors confiscated more than 15 million campaign newsletters, calendars and fliers from the Union of Right Forces, one of the mainstream liberal parties that has come under regular harassment. In some cities, leaflets were anonymously distributed saying that the party was employing people with AIDS as canvassers.
Nikita Y. Belykh, a party leader, said he could not recall the last time that the party was covered by the main television news programs positively. Mr. Belykh was briefly detained by the police last weekend during protests conducted by an opposition coalition, Other Russia, that is led by Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion. Mr. Kasparov was arrested and sentenced to five days in jail.
He added that the party had received numerous reports from around the country of people being threatened with retribution if they did not vote for United Russia.
That was the experience of Mr. Voronin, the professor in Siberia, who lives in Prokopyevsk, 2,000 miles east of Moscow. Speaking by phone, Mr. Voronin said local United Russia officials had guaranteed party leaders that they would receive 80 percent of the vote in the region.
“They periodically summon directors of the local branches of the universities, directors of technical schools, specialized schools, head doctors of clinics and hospitals and give them instructions on how to vote,” Mr. Voronin said. “They also call together different categories of voters — for instance, young people who are going to vote for the first time — and explain to them how they should do it ‘correctly.’”
Here’s an interesting bit of exclusive news: a trusted colleague of mine has leaked to me copies of a series of worrying placards being printed right now in Moscow by the Nashi for distribution on Sunday following (or during) the successful elections. These items of propaganda urge Putin supporters to take to the streets in premature celebration, to defend the outcome before it is announced officially on Dec. 6. It is in many ways an open gesture of confession that even the Nashi don’t believe that a real election is taking place.
The posters use highly incendiary language and aggressive caricatures in the name of the president, similar to an exhortation to riot seen in other countries far less developed than Russia. I’m considerably concerned about this development, and I warn all friends and colleagues in Moscow to exercise extreme care in the days between the election and the announcement of results. It seems that the murder of a Yabloko candidate, the arrest and jailing of Kasparov and others, and the ongoing violence at any opposition rally isn’t enough to satisfy the Nashi. I fear the worst could still be yet to come.
I take my cardboard Putin everywhere, too
Anne Applebaum asks the question, “If Putin (and by extension, United Russia) is so popular, why even bother to harass the opposition?”:
Kasparov himself answers this question—one of many political mysteries in Russia at the moment—by arguing that Putin is far less secure than he appears to be. During a recent lecture in Warsaw, I heard him convince a large crowd that Russian opinion polling in general should be taken with a grain of salt: In an authoritarian society, especially a post-Soviet one, who tells the truth to a stranger over the telephone? He also claimed that polls asking more specific questions—”Is your city well-run? Is your mayor corrupt?”—produce a far less contented portrait of Russian society than questions like, “Do you approve of Vladimir Putin?”
Maybe so—but that doesn’t exclude the other, grimmer explanation, which is that Putin beats up his opposition because he can. The dollar is sinking, Bush is fading, and Europe still doesn’t have a unified Russia policy. Meanwhile, Russia is awash in oil money, next week’s parliamentary elections will go the Kremlin’s way no matter what, and why should the Russian president care if there’s some name-calling in the Washington Post?
Exactly. Putin…does…not…care. What can the U.S. do? Not a damn thing.