Putin has won. That’s an objective fact. Even taking into account all the fraud, carousels, box stuffing in full view of the CCTV cameras, the majority are behind Putin, and there is no alternative – at least, not yet.
The conclusiveness of the result doesn’t justify the means by which it was achieved. Children are sometimes born as a result of rape, but that doesn't justify sexual violence. This time the main issue with the vote rigging was the so-called extra lists, which formally were perfectly legitimate, would not be picked up by CCTV cameras, and would be noticed by election monitors only if they were too carelessly compiled. The fact that it will be very difficult to take this issue to court or make a substantiated complaint to the Central Elections Committee is neither here nor there. Everybody saw what was happening, everybody knew what it meant.
It is tempting to put the widespread fraud in Moscow and St Petersburg down to Putin’s personal malice, but it is probably just a side effect of how the government machine works. This machine has two main priorities: a) to demonstrate its loyalty to the bosses and b) to balance the budget. In the process of achieving these two objectives, the machine systematically works against itself - and its internal degradation is ever more perceptible.
The main achievement of the last three months may turn out to have been the emergence of a significant number of people who were prepared to work around the clock on pretty tedious tasks in dreary public buildings for the sake of a fair election. This group of people did not exist in Russia either in 2008 or 2004, and certainly not before that. They are the true heroes of 4th March: they saw everything, they knew what it all meant, they are the people who are turning the idea of fair elections into something more concrete, and that will sooner or later become reality.
'Become an observer'! There were ten times as many observers signed up to monitor last Sunday's presidential elections as they were in previous ballots. For the first time in Putin’s Russia, having a civic position has become fashionable.
On the one hand, the people who say that the protest rallies of the last few months achieved none of their goals are quite right. On the other hand, many, less explicit, goals were achieved. One of these was the emergence of thousands of monitors - people, in other words, for whom the fair conduct of the election process was a vital concern. Think about it: three months ago a demonstration attended by 5,000 people represented a quantum leap; Aleksey Navalny was a popular blogger; Sergey Udaltsov a one-man picket; Ksenia Sobchak a glamour puss and Irina Prokhorova the director of a small publishing house. Even the phrase ‘swindlers and thieves’, which sums up the attitude of millions of Russians to their rulers, appeared just over a year ago. Everything has changed, and everything will go on changing.
I have to confess to a terrible sin: I am not convinced about the further escalation of protest actions that my colleagues on the ‘For Fair Elections’ committee are always talking about. If we saw no such escalation in the last few months, if there is no exponential growth in the numbers attending, which remain at about 60-70,000 people in Moscow, then we have no grounds for thinking that attendance will rise steeply in the months to come, unless of course the Kremlin does something incredibly stupid.
‘I have to confess to a terrible sin: I am not convinced about the further escalation of protest actions that my colleagues on the ‘For Fair Elections’ committee are always talking about.’
The key element in the ‘Orange Revolution’ (which people tend to talk about as though it was a bad thing) was not the tents filling Kiev’s central square, but the presence there of one of the runners in the presidential race, whom much of the population felt had been robbed of his victory. The idea of fair elections, regardless of who takes part in them, is in itself important, but lacks the element of thrill.
If the new opposition leaders who have emerged in the last months come to the conclusion that their only option is to man the barricades, then they will have made a grave mistake. It’s not a question of the protest being ‘run down’, or the fact that in its present peaceful and regulated form it presents no threat to the ruling clique (who basically barely notice it), but rather that the social base of the present movement, having grown very fast in the last few months, has now peaked. To attract more people, we need to adopt new strategies.
Aleksey Navalny’s various campaigns, including his ‘Rospil’ ‘war on corruption’, are incredibly spectacular and effective, but the number of people (mostly small and medium businesspeople) willing to follow the Rospilites on the internet as they ‘humiliate and tame’ some Vekselberg or other is limited by definition; most Russians have no idea who or what a Vekselberg might be. It might be useful for Navalny to set up his own ‘Komsomol’, a network of mini-Navalnys all over the country, who would channel their enthusiasm (perhaps even offline) into chasing away, before an audience of stunned locals, the officials responsible for the fact that pavements are not cleared of snow, there is no heating in subzero temperatures and the taps don’t deliver water.
Udaltsov, on the other hand, has a unique opportunity to reconstitute the Communist Party, using its existing regional structures, into which he would introduce new blood. Of course Udaltsov would then find himself banned from national TV channels and they would start arresting him again at protest meetings, but it would still be worth doing.
As for the party of the ‘angry urbanites’, the ‘creative class’ or the ‘new intelligentsia’, whose emergence has been on the cards for so long and which Prokhorov will probably try to form now – it cannot really be created purely on class principles: ‘all you creative types, come and join us!’ It will require a campaign to bring together people like this in different parts of Russia, in the same way as Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign brought together all the internet freaks.
‘If the new opposition leaders who have emerged in the last months come to the conclusion that their only option is to man the barricades, then they will have made a grave mistake.’
And however this campaign is organised, it must concern itself with the restoration of social justice and improvements in the quality of people’s lives, issues close to all Russians, and not just serve the interests of the creative minority.
All this would create a situation where for the majority of senior officials (especially at local level) expenditure on stolen votes and balanced budgets would begin to outweigh any potential profit. And that will be the end of Putin.
In the end, the nature of people’s love for Putin is of a generally feminine type, and can be expressed through basic, traditional female stereotypes. ‘At least my bloke doesn’t drink; he may be on half pay, but he brings it straight home – not like Lyuda’s, who spends the lot on booze’. Or, ‘If he beats me, it means he loves me’. If you want a girl to leave a guy who doesn’t drink but is a bit light-fingered, and fall in love with someone who can speak foreign languages, earns his money honestly, can cook and has a charming smile, it makes no sense to wait for her to read his blog and fall in love at a distance. She needs a bit of courting: trips to the cinema, presents, chocolates. The girl will come down on the side of good in the end – but it helps if good also buys her pastries.
A version of this article was published in Russian on www.lenta.ru