Zaxi blog on Russia's "Silent Coup":
“Russian Vote Affirms Putin’s Path.” This piece of news comes to you not from the Kremlin press office but the headline writers of The Wall Street Journal.
The Washington Post called it “a convincing personal victory” and The New York Times “a triumph.” The Associated Press went with “overwhelms.” Reuters and The Christian Science Monitor – and the Journal again – all shared a “landslide.” Even The Economist headline agreed that “Vladimir Putin looks stronger.”
What a strange chorus of opinion. So confident. So off key.
And so closely resembling what the Kremlin is saying about the State Duma vote that the choir may want to pause for breath.
Sunday’s poll may in fact leave the Kremlin more than a touch nervous about initial cracks appearing in its monopolistic foundation. Putin’s party – simply put – fell short of expectations. At least six percent short.
This after months of television brainwashing and Putin’s divine intervention. After factories of workers were bused to voting booths to cast ballots for United Russia under penalty of job loss. After Ramzan Kadyrov produced 99 percent of the Chechen vote on 99 percent turnout – nearly identical to the result in neighboring Ingushetia. After senseless arrests of opposition figures and state-ordered national rallies. All the Orwellian transgressions are simply too numerous to name and have been thankfully well documented in the same Western press.
And yet – and yet – United Russia won just 64 percent of the vote. That is seven less than Putin himself did in 2004 and short of the Constitutional majority that was a Kremlin prerequisite for Sunday’s exercise. The party will still hold 70 percent of the Duma seats thanks to Putin’s new election rules and the Constitution remains at the Kremlin’s mercy. But the new Duma pretty much resembles the old one. No visible progress in the president’s favor was made – despite Putin repeatedly telling Russians that this vote was actually just about him.
One in three Russians officially told Putin to shove it. Probably half would have done so if their work was not in doubt. More votes would have been lost if a few alternative candidates were allowed to appear on the news.
No wonder Putin’s spokesman was on the phone to Reuters seconds after polls closed to explain that “the first partial results … show that the overwhelming majority of Russian voters spoke in favor of United Russia – thus supporting President Putin’s course and speaking in favor of it being continued after the current president’s second term ends.”
Quite a mouthful – and a goldmine for psychoanalysts. Swallow hard and repeat as often as possible: The Russians have spoken. They want all this to go on.
What this vote demonstrated quite graphically was just how much danger Putin & Co. really are in. Putin was only able to muster 64 percent support in a Soviet-style election while still serving as president. Remove him from power for six months and place another mug on television – they will have to. And take a look at how many votes Putin swings then.
Spare no doubt. The Kremlin has cheated its way to ensure that it can always refer back to this date and say that whatever it plans to do next is justified. A dominant Duma majority is still a dominant Duma majority. But the Kremlin may now have to do quite a lot to keep Putin’s people in power for the long haul – and that is worrying.
What comes next may be as difficult to answer here as in Putin's chambers. There should now be no doubt for anyone brave enough to keep their own opinion in the administration that Putin will not be able to survive four years out of power and return. He will need to be handed a very strong interim post. And the next president will have to serve for only the briefest stint decency allows before developing pneumonia.
But the Kremlin has absolutely no time to plot – and this may either be to Russia’s benefit or demise. It could all go horribly wrong and lead to mass arrests rather than welcome incompetence. United Russia was set to nominate its presidential election candidate on December 17 – although a few days' delay amid the confusion now seems likely. Russia’s real election is only about two weeks away.
The party has been pretty much denied the right to re-nominate Putin no matter how much the entire system wants to cling on. This means the position actually has to be filled – an odd feeling for a party that removed all names from leadership posts in Putin’s favor for Sunday’s vote. A name will be pressed upon it by the laws of time. So who will it be?
Probably Viktor Zubkov. The prime minister is just the right age to fall ill in inclement weather and goes way back in Putin’s biography. Zubkov will allow his old Saint Petersburg administration student to assume any new office he wants while dutifully fulfilling the role of meeting ministers in silent evening news footage. A Zubkov nomination would mean that Putin will probably be back heading the Kremlin by 2010 and that Constitutional changes extending the presidential term to six or eight years will start getting drafted this spring.
It is unlikely that Putin would tell Russians to vote for anyone else. But there are Kremlin forces that would like to exercise a bit more power from now on without all this sharing. Some may even be realistically thinking ahead to days when Russia is not pocketing 800 million dollars a day from oil and gas exports. A revolt is brewing in the ranks. It is evident from turmoil in the feuding security services and a bizarre Kommersant piece that levels charges against Putin’s pals that are not usually made by those who value life and limb.
Any candidate other than Zubkov would thus symbolize a Kremlin coup. A man like Sergei Ivanov – strong and certainly as telegenic as Putin – would mean an outright revolution: the president has already tried to bury him once. It would suggest that someone managed to outmuscle a Putin appointment. This scenario was outrageous before Sunday. It now seems a very remote possibility. But a possibility nonetheless. And that is the “landslide” vote’s real outcome.
Sunday was a pretty remarkable show of independence by Russians within the confines of a Soviet state. It is terrifying to think how Putin plans to nip this in the bud so that he genuinely “looks stronger.”
Thursday, December 06, 2007
Zaxi blog on Russia's "Silent Coup":