Russia: A Last-Minute Overview of Pre-Election Blogging

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011/12.

On Dec. 31, 1999, as Russians were celebrating New Year's Eve, a holiday that transcends religion and politics, President Boris Yeltsin went on the air and announced that Vladimir Putin would be instated as acting President. Before signing off, he added: “I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never came true. And also I would like to beg forgiveness not to have justified your hopes.”

In the aftermath of the devastating apartment bombings that occurred in September 1999 and the launching of the Second Chechen War, Mr. Putin's sole platform for the 2000 Russian presidential election was counter-terrorism in the North Caucasus. Beyond that, Mr. Putin refused to campaign or to join a political party. Nevertheless, he finished first among the 11 candidates with 53% of the vote – and the “Putin Era” began.

Twelve years later, Mr Putin's candidacy seems much more turbulent, as protesters took to the the streets alleging improprieties in the Dec. 2011 parliamentary elections. Still, polling data suggests that he is heading into Sunday's election with the support of the majority of the electorate.

Protesters hold a poster against the Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin during a rally for fair elections in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo by MIKE KIREEV, copyright © Demotix (25/02/12).

For World Affairs Journal Blog, Vladimir Kara-Murza contextualized the March 4 election in a post entitled, “In Sunday's Vote, It's Putin Vs. Russia”:

On Monday, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki was at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, attending a performance of Rodion Shchedrin’s opera Dead Souls. As the performance was getting underway, spectators noticed Penderecki in the box and started booing. The legendary musician was bewildered, not understanding the reason for such hostility. Only later was it explained to him that the audience mistook him for Vladimir Churov, the chairman of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission — to whom he indeed bears an uncanny resemblance.

As Sunday’s presidential election draws near, the public frustration with Vladimir Putin is becoming increasingly apparent. Over the weekend, thousands of Muscovites formed a human chain alongside the 10-mile Garden Ring Road — inspired by the pro-independence “Baltic Way” of 1989 — to protest Putin’s return to power and demand free and fair elections. In St. Petersburg, thousands of people from across the political spectrum marched through the city center calling for “a peaceful revolution.” Attitudes to the regime are also being expressed in less political ways: a mock Channel One “news report” from the future showing Putin’s arrest and trial in Moscow became an instant online hit, with five million views in one week. […]

Sean Guillory of Sean's Russia Blog provided the background for the candidates running against Mr. Putin:

[…] Indeed, the Russian presidential election has been anything but ordinary. Sure, the official cast of characters remains virtually identical to past contests, save a few additions. Communist Party stalwart, Gennady Ziuganov still plays the role of “loyal opposition in-chief,” the aging face of a Communist Party that has the organizational resources to actually present a political alternative to Putin, but lacks the so-called “Leninist will” to adapt to present political conditions. Part of that adaption, however, would require dumping Ziuganov and forsake its aging electorate, something the KPRF mandarins and rank and file are still unwilling to do. Opposite Ziuganov is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another perennial “loyal oppositionist.” Zhirik plays the harlequin in this grand performance, adding outrageous, comic relief to a show already thin on drama. In a way, Zhirinovsky reflects the whole process itself, a clown for a clownish spectacle. Then there is Mikhail Prokhorov, the new addition to the cast. Prokhorov serves as a kind of Khodorkovsky-lite (since the real Khodorkovsky is less pliable and, well, in jail for the foreseeable future). An oligarch who “made” the bulk of his wealth in the “loans for shares” scheme that saved Boris Yeltsin from defeat in the 1996 Presidential election, Prokhorov, unlike Khodorkovsky, not only understood the rules of the game, but also played them correctly. But the biggest question that has dogged Prokhorov is not his past, but whether he’s a Kremlin project or not. I suspect that he’s a mixture. One thing is clear to me after reading Julia Ioffe’s profile of him in the New Yorker is that Prokhorov’s biggest obstacle is that he’s a sleazeball. Bringing up the rear is Just Russia’s candidate, Sergei Mironov. His candidacy only inspires one question: Who’s he? […]

Along with the results of the election itself, freedom of expression has been a resounding issue for the past few months.

Committee to Protect Journalists Blog provided details to the backlash the Russian media endured after its coverage of the protests surrounding the controversial Dec. 2011 parliamentary elections:

[…] On December 12, Russian tycoon Alisher Usmanov, owner of the Kommersant Publishing House – which produces independent business daily Kommersant and several other news outlets – announced that he was sacking Maksim Kovalsky, chief editor of the popular weekly magazine Kommersant-Vlast. Demyan Kudryavtsev, the publisher's executive director, announced he would resign. The news was a huge blow, as Kovalsky and Kudryavtsev are leading journalists and considered fathers of Kommersant and its publisher.

The magazine's coverage of the parliamentary election was surely the reason for Kommersant‘s beheading. A week after the vote, most of Kommersant-Vlast‘s coverage was of the alleged fraud that led to public outrage and protests unprecedented in Russia in the past decade. But Usmanov – believed to be in Putin's close circle – zeroed in on a formal reason to punish the magazine. In its December 12 issue, Kommersant-Vlast published a picture of a ballot cast in London for the opposition Yabloko party; the ballot carried a hand-written insult to Putin across it. Usmanov publicly scolded the magazine for “unacceptable use of coarse language,” and said it was unethical and “on the borderline of hooliganism.” The magazine removed the picture from its website, but it was circulated on social networks, including Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin's Twitter account.

The removal of Kovalsky and Kudryavtsev angered their colleagues at Kommersant. Two days later, dozens of journalists from Usmanov's news outlets – including independent news website Gazeta – signed and published online an open letter headlined, “We are forced into cowardice.” Veronika Kucyllo, a long-serving deputy editor at Kommersant-Vlast, announced her resignation in protest of Usmanov's decision.

Another important theme this election season has been the role of citizen media as a catalyst of political activism in Russia. Even though they are harder to censor than mainstream news sources, they are not totally immune to censorship, as Global Voices discussed in a post entitled, “Why are Russians Protesting Now?”

In a post entitled, “The Man Vladimir Putin Fears Most,” Wall Street Journal Blog predicts that blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny will have an impact on the presidential election:

[…] Anticorruption blogger and activist Alexei Navalny will be in the middle of it — as he has been over the past three months of Russia's unexpected political awakening. By the tens of thousands, Russians shed their fear and apathy to protest December's fraud-ridden parliamentary elections and Mr. Putin's hold on power. From a crowded stage of opposition figures, Mr. Navalny has emerged as the charismatic and fresh face of the movement.

The next phase will test him and the opposition. The series of large demonstrations after December exposed the shallowness of support for Mr. Putin in the large cities and public frustration with the political stagnation and lack of accountability in Russia. Yet the rallies forced no notable government concessions. Though weakened, Mr. Putin gets a new term and possibly energy to reverse his slide or to crack down. […]

Tolik Belenko's Russian-language LiveJounal blog included a link to a “Nashi” announcement [ru] that the pro-Putin youth group has made plans to quash civil unrest in the aftermath of the elections:

On March 5, a few thousand activists from the groups “Nashi” and “Steel” will take to the streets of Moscow in order to prevent any illegal activity aimed at destabilizing society in the aftermath of the Russian presidential election.

LJ user tolik_belenko also shared the link to Nashi's announcement on his page [ru]. Readers’ comments were somewhat ominous.

Johnny TraHvoltin wrote [ru]:

This has already happened, though not with us, but in China, when [Mao Zedong] occasionally called out the [Red Guards Hóng Wèibīng] troops to the streets in order to maintain order. How did it end? Read history.

Svetlana wrote [ru]:

It's not yet tomorrow. Why guess? We shall see.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011/12.

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