Ivar Amundsen: The Putin “election”– already a scandal

By Ivar Amundsen
Director Chechnya Peace Forum, London

The Kremlin, with Vladimir Putin in the driver’s seat, controls the Russian parliament, government, legislature, judiciary, judges, military, police, media, regional authorities, even its own political opposition – and, of course, the elections! As for those who dare to challenge this compelling manifestation of force and invincibility, the regime will clamp down hard. The Putin regime has absorbed the essence of George Orwell’s 1984 and is therefore the flag bearer of the Stalin and Brezhnev spirit of the Soviet era. In the West, and in most of Russia, this is called dictatorship or authoritarian rule. In the Kremlin it is called “Managed Democracy.”

In last December’s Duma elections Putin’s “United Russia” ended up with just 49.3% of the votes, against 64.3% four years earlier. This must be considered alongside the 7,000 complaints of election fraud, including 10 million fraudulent votes and the manipulation of election records. In Chechnya, where Putin and his locally appointed president, Ramzan Kadyrov, are the two most detested men, a result of 99.48% in favour of Putin’s party was announced – which says it all. Without this massive fraud, “United Russia” would have dropped to a disastrous 30-35%.

The Russian people are thoroughly fed up with having their democracy, money, elections and freedom stolen from them by a criminal and his gang. Facing another twelve years of this, we are finally seeing the Russian people rise and formulate their demands in large-scale peaceful demonstrations. Chief blogger Alexei Navalny has become a symbol of the demand for change after nicknaming Putin’s party “The Party of Crooks and Thieves.” A few weeks ago a giant board was hung from a building near the Kremlin with the text: “Putin – Get Lost.” This has been the message from the Russian people since the Duma elections and it has sent shock waves deep into the Kremlin, the White House and Lubyanka.

Putin simply had to come back as president: He had nowhere else to go. His personal wealth has been estimated to be in the range of $100bn. To this should be added the tens of thousands of civilian lives he has to answer for following his brutal war in Chechnya. To protect his position he was forced to seek the presidential chair, the only political seat where he can control his destiny and be certain of impunity for his crimes. It is clear that this arrangement was made with Medvedev four years ago, rendering the election a mere mockery.

However, even before the election Putin has eliminated all real opposition. The candidates allowed to stand are the party leaders in the Duma: The Communist Zyuganov, the Nationalist Zhirinovsky and the Social Democrat Mironov – all pretty loyal to Putin and consequently no threat to him. In addition, the oligarch Prokhorov has been allowed to stand. But any billionaire oligarch making an electoral challenge to Putin knows he must stay loyal to him, or face the same fate as Khodorkovsky. So the inevitable conclusion is that Prokhorov’s nomination is nothing but a stunt. The only politician who represented a real challenge to Putin was the liberal Yavlinsky, who was predictably disqualified from the election. Other potential opponents, like Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, Kasianov, Navalny and Kasparov, did not even bother to try, understanding that they would only lend legitimacy to a dictatorial farce.

One would think that with such safeguards Putin would feel extremely confident. On the contrary; there are signs of panic. Even with the aid of manipulations Putin could face a second ballot on 18 March against his nearest challenger. This humiliation would represent an undermining of his authority, which he will be unable to live with for very long. The regime needs a strong man to defend its position and control. If Putin can no longer deliver, he may well be deposed from within.

In order to facilitate a result somewhere near his target every dirty trick in the book is used. Kremlin-appointed regional leaders know that they are expected to deliver the best possible election result for Putin, which filters down to the individual citizens. The whole media circus is mobilized in favour of

Putin, who remains aloof from the electoral debate, restricting himself to ordering "spontaneous" demonstrations.

Putin’s paranoid rhetoric alleges “evil intentions” against Russia from the West. Indeed, last month the head of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, claimed that the West was promoting a malicious pro-democracy mass movement in Russia to have a pretext to invade and destroy the nation. Meanwhile, false allegations and slur campaigns aimed at the opposition are a recurring feature. Bugging of phones and e-mails, raiding of offices, cyber-attacks, arrests and false indictments are commonplace. But the question is: Will this suffice this time?

Experts are worried that the Kremlin may become so desperate as to set all moral scruples aside and stage a dramatic pretext, to create a state of emergency and mobilize voters towards Putin’s “strength and stability.” A terrorist onslaught in Moscow could conceivably serve as such a pretext. Such extreme cynicism, however, might prove to be a double-edged sword. The Russian public is used to terrorist attacks in political situations: “Qui bono – Who Profits?” is the question generally asked.

Putin is in a catch-22 situation. Being soft on the rising opposition will allow it to grow strong and he will lose his grip and his power. But coming down hard on demonstrations may stir up a Russian version of last year’s Arab Spring. There are now thousands of military and police on high alert in Moscow. Should they be used in a brutal confrontation with demonstrators after the election, this could result in a blood bath. The outcome would be dramatic and have enormous consequences, eventually also for Putin.

So, what will happen on 4 March in Russia? I see four possible scenarios:

- Putin wins more than fifty per cent. This will lead to major protest demonstrations, the outcomes of which are uncertain.

- Putin wins less than fifty per cent and there is a second ballot. This will leave Putin considerably weakened, the effect of which is also highly uncertain.

- Potential dramatic events immediately before the election may lead to its cancellation.

- Finally, the election fraud will be so obvious that disqualification of the result is unavoidable. A new election must be held - but with totally different parameters.

Whatever the outcome: This is the beginning of the end of the Putin era. His time is up and we will witness a paradigm shift in Russian politics. What the Russians must do now is vote - for any candidate but Putin. A high turnout increases the chances of reducing Putin's share of the votes. This may be what it takes to break the iron ring and pave the way to a democratic election in the not too distant future.

The West must watch this election carefully. If the conclusion is that it does not meet the standards of democracy and legitimacy, the election must be declared invalid. In no uncertain terms this means a refusal to accept Vladimir Putin as the lawfully elected president of the Russian Federation and a call for a new and fair election.