Moscow: Vladimir Putin appears all but certain
to return to the Kremlin in Sunday’s Russian Presidential
Election, but he`ll find himself in charge of a country far
more willing to challenge him.
An unprecedented wave of massive protests showed a
substantial portion of the population was fed up with the
political entrenchment engineered by Putin since he first
became president in 2000, and police are already preparing for
the possibility of postelection unrest in Moscow.
The Putin system of so-called "managed democracy" put
liberal opposition forces under consistent pressure, allowing
them only rare permission to hold small rallies and bringing
squads of police to harshly break up any unauthorized
The Kremlin gained control of all major television
channels and their news reports turned into uncritical
recitations of Putin`s programs, often augmented with admiring
footage of him riding horseback, scuba-diving or petting wild
But the protests, sparked by allegations of widespread
fraud in December`s Parliamentary Elections, forced notable
Authorities gave permission, however grudgingly, for
opposition rallies that attracted vast crowds, upward of
50,000 in Moscow. State television gave them substantial and
mostly neutral coverage.
Whether that tolerance will last after the election is
unclear. According to the most recent survey by the
independent Levada Center polling agency, Putin is on track to
win the election with around two-thirds of the vote against
four challengers, enough to bolster his irritable
denunciations of the protesters as a small, coddled minority.
Putin has repeatedly alleged that the protesters are
stooges of the United States and Western European countries
that want to undermine Russia and he has insulted them, saying
for instance that their white ribbon emblems looked like
In the past week, the rhetoric became even harsher as
Putin publicly suggested the opposition was willing to kill
one of its own figures in order to stoke outrage against him.
That claim came on the heels of state television reports that
a plot by Chechen rebels to kill Putin right after the
election had been foiled. Some of Putin`s election rivals
dismissed the report as a campaign trick to boost support for
Protests after the election appear certain.
Whether Sunday`s vote is seen as honest is likely to be
key; a count without reports of wide violations could deprive
protesters of a galvanizing issue.
Along with the OSCE mission, tens of thousands of
Russians have volunteered to be election observers, receiving
training for activist groups on how to recognize vote-rigging
and record and report violations.