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As Russias March 4th presidential vote approaches, Vladimir Putin is beginning to realize that, for the first time in 12 years, he may be risking defeat. With 36 percent support in the polls, he will likely have to go into a runoff (local authorities have are already begun preparations), where the outcome will be far from certain. With its survival at stake, the regime is pulling out all the stops to ensure that its man is declared the winner in March.

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This week, the Central Election Commission announced that it will disqualify liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky from the presidential ballot, after declaring a quarter of the signatures in support of his nomination defective. Apart from disenfranchising millions of democratically minded Russians who would have backed Yavlinsky on March 4th, the Kremlins decision is intended to achieve two specific goals. First: with many would-be Yavlinsky voters staying home, the turnout will likely be depressed, thus increasing Putins share of the votes cast, and bringing him closer to the 50-percent-plus-one result required to avoid a runoff. Second and, perhaps, more important: Yavlinsky and his Yabloko party have pledged to field 90,000 election monitors across Russia on March 4th to prevent (or at least document and publicize) fraud at the polls. Yabloko monitors played an instrumental role in uncovering the scale of the fraud in Decembers parliamentary election, paving the way for the largest pro-democracy protests in Russia since 1991. With Yavlinskys name off the ballot, his monitors15,000 of whom have already signed upwill no longer have access to the polls. Their absence will make the task of correcting vote tallies a great deal easier.

The decision to disqualify Yavlinsky was announced at the same time as Golos, Russias only independent election monitoring group, was told to vacate its offices by February 1st (even though the lease is valid until August), and was warned that, if it decided to stay, it should expect trouble with electricity through March 6thuntil just after the first round of the presidential election.

The Kremlins strategy is clear: push for a Putin victory on the first ballot, by whatever means necessary, and present it as a fait accompli, in the hope that pro-democracy forces lose momentum. Russias opposition now has only one choice. As Yabloko chairman Sergei Mitrokhin noted, Russian courts, just as the Central Election Commission, serve the authorities therefore it is much more effective in Russia to go to rallies than to go to courts. This is hard to dispute. Decembers 100,000-strong protest rallies in Moscow forced the regime to reinstate direct gubernatorial elections, ease hurdles for registering new political parties, andfor the first time in yearsallow opposition leaders on national television.

Only sustained public pressure can disrupt the Kremlins scenario for the March vote. Tens of thousands of people are expected to participate in the upcoming pro-democracy march in Moscow on February 4th. With Yavlinskys removal from the ballot, their ranks are likely to swell further. On Tuesday, the Moscow authorities announced their refusal to sanction the February 4th rally in the city center, and suggested holding the protest at the outskirts of the capital. Opposition leaders have already indicated that protesters will march through central Moscow regardless of what the authorities say. The stakes are rising. The coming weeks will be decisive for Russias political future.

Share inShare0EmailPrintUpdate. At midnight last night, the Moscow mayors office reversed its decision and approved the opposition march in central Moscow on February 4th. The march will end with a rally on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin.

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Vladimir Kara-Murza's blog

http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/vl...-moves-fix-vote

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Just weeks ago, Russias March 2012 presidential election seemed a foregone conclusion, with Vladimir Putins victoryby whatever meansvirtually guaranteed.   :drum:   :drum:   :drum:

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So much so that most opposition leaders, with the exception of liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, decided to skip the contest altogether, mindful of the experience of 2008, when pro-democracy candidates Vladimir Bukovsky and Mikhail Kasyanov were denied access to the ballot. The 2012 field (again, with the exception of Yavlinsky) narrowed to a handful of Putins handpicked shadow boxers: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former Upper House Speaker Sergei Mironov, and ostensibly center-right billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Another contender, Kremlin-appointed Irkutsk Governor Dmitri MezentsevPutins old colleague from St. Petersburgwas chosen as a purely technical candidate, for the unlikely event that all the others stood down, thus annulling the election.

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Share inShare0EmailPrintThen, just as the deadline for nominating candidates was passing, the Moscow Spring100,000-strong anti-Putin protests, the biggest rallies the Russian capital has seen in two decadesradically changed both the political context and the public atmosphere. Putins regime offered hasty concessions by returning gubernatorial elections and lowering hurdles for registering political parties and presidential candidates.

The already scheduled vote on March 4th, however, would not be affected: the deadline for nominations would not be extended; new presidential candidates would not be registered. This gave Russias empowered pro-democracy movement a paradoxical task: defeat the dictator on his own turf. As columnist Andrei Piontkovsky noted, Putin has himself chosen the battlefield, the time of battle, the weapon, the rules, the competitors, the commentators, and the judges. Nevertheless we, the citizens of Russia, must accept this dishonest challenge and, despite everything, we must win.

The latest poll numbers suggest that this taskuntil recently unthinkablemay just be possible to achieve. The Levada Center polling agency has Putins support in the presidential election at 36 percent; nowhere near the 50-percent-plus-one vote needed for a first-round victory. The poll numbers of other candidatesbetween 2 and 7 percentare essentially within the margin of error from each other, meaning that any one of them could face Putin in the presidential runoff on March 18th, when, given the current climate, the majority of Russian voters would likely back any candidate, as long as his name is not Vladimir Putinwith the understanding that the new president would be a transitional figure who will release political prisoners, remove restrictions on political participation, and call early elections. (According to the polls, a plurality of the December protesters is planning to vote for Yavlinsky).

With seven weeks until polling day, Putins regime faces a dilemma. It can either risk a runoffand a likely defeat. Or it can attempt fraud on the scale of the recent Duma election to achieve victory in the first roundand face even larger protests on the streets of Moscow. Either way, the Kremlin does not seem to have much room for maneuver. The next opposition rally, planned for February 4ththe anniversary of the one million march in 1990, which forced the Soviet authorities to officially end one-party rulewill give the regime another gentle reminder.

Vladimir Kara-Murza's blog

http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/vl...lection-dilemma

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