Today TOL turns its editors blog over to Katherine Brooks, a master’s candidate at Columbia University focusing on Russia and the Balkans. Brooks was in Moscow for the presidential election yesterday and sent a round-up of observations and media reports.
The presidential elections in Russia took place on March 4th amid various claims of fraudulent behavior at the polls. Despite the presence of 30,000 trained volunteer election observers and the installation of webcams in more than 90,000 polls in Russia, nearly 1,000 irregularities were reported by midday with Russia’s League of Voters tallying 3,000 reports of fraud by day’s end. In particular, there were numerous complaints of “carousel voting” – wherein a group of voters is bussed from polling station to polling station to register their vote multiple times.
The webcams, installed under order from then-Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin and intended to deter in-station violations, seemed to have failed to have any real impact on the events of the day. One camera aired the entirety of a retirement party in the Tyumen region of Russia while another simply aired footage of schoolchildren in class sessions. In fact, footage from the cameras is unlikely to yield any further investigation even if fraudulent activity is recorded, as the blurry quality of the pictures stands little chance in any court.
In Moscow, there was little talk of the elections themselves on the streets; however, police officers and construction workers could be seen throughout the city, patrolling the heavily trafficked areas and setting up stages and equipment. Near Triumfalnaya plaza, officers of various uniforms walked up and down Tverskaya street, and various police vehicles lined the surrounding blocks – from riot police trucks to military jeeps to unmarked vans. While the police were reportedly dispatched in preparation for the large-scale pro-Putin demonstrations scheduled for the night of March 4th, some of the areas filled with officers and vehicles are also the locations of the March 5th opposition protests. There were no serious instances of civic unrest on Sunday; however, police did arrest three topless female demonstrators who showed up at the polling station where Putin deposited his ballot.
Perhaps as predictable as the closing time for the polls, Putin was declared the first-round victor at 8 p.m. in Moscow with an exit poll share of 58 to 59 percent (a number that would reach into the mid-60s by other accounts). The Communist Party’s candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, followed behind with a double-digit finish of around 17 percent, while the other presidential hopefuls – Mikhail Prokhorov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Sergei Mironov– held up the rear with single-digit shares. Zyuganov, whose campaign ads focused in part on the demand for free and fair elections, deemed the election “illegitimate, dishonest, and untransparent.”
Prokhorov explained at a post-election reception that he considered his performance to be a victory, although he did complain of voting violations. His remarks were ambiguous regarding his potential attendance at the post-election protests.
Putin’s victory was followed by a very public celebration on Tverskaya street, featuring a number of famous musical guests and a crowd that numbered in the thousands. Putin himself took the stage to deliver a tear-soaked thank you to all the voters who “said ‘yes’ to a great Russia,” emphasizing that the results showed that the Russian people “can tell the difference between a desire for renewal and political provocation.” Several news stations covered the gathering in Moscow, all airing quick shots of the chilly supporters huddled together looking visibly cold and not particularly enthusiastic. Shortly after the rally, one of the celebration’s attendants claimed that he was paid to stand in support for Putin after being bussed to the rally’s location.
Several protest movement figures immediately took to social media to denounce the numerous cases of electoral fraud witnessed by individuals throughout Russia. Alexey Navalny, the popular blogger and opposition figure, remarked on the “primitive” tactic of carousel voting used in Moscow and other cities, stating that it demonstrated a blatant disregard for the electoral process and that it along with other fraudulent behavior ultimately resulted in an unfair and dishonest vote. Navalny and other opposition leaders such as Mikhail Kasyanov continued to call Russian citizens to the streets for an organized demonstration on March 5th as more violations were reported, in hopes of sustaining the wave of protests that began in December after the parliamentary elections.
All in all, Putin has avoided the threat of a second round competition, demonstrating his ability to obtain well over 50 percent of voters’ approval – albeit significantly less than in previous presidential election performances. Moreover, he has secured his position once again as president of Russia for at least another six years, possibly 12 if he seeks reelection in 2018. However, the flagrant reports of electoral fraud and the persistence of the opposition movement as vocal representatives of the dissatisfied populace have certainly taken a toll on his legitimacy as the sole ruler of the Russian Federation. Putin now faces a mobilized civil society ready to not only demand a re-vote of the parliamentary elections, but to also force the issue of accountable governance. The morning after the elections in Moscow, citizens have been buzzing about the opposition gatherings planned for 7 p.m. Moscow time, and it is unlikely that discussions will end then.