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Not content to rig its own election, the government has also tried to rig its own popular support. To counter images of anti-Putin rallies, the government in recent months has staged its own pro-Putin demonstrations. This weekend, while the opposition rallied under the banner of free and fair elections, the government organized a competing demonstration around a less inspiring theme, “We Have Much to Lose.” Demonstrators warned of the dangers of a government without Putin while speakers, echoing the government’s anti-American themes, denounced the pro-democracy demonstrators as “lackeys of America” who want to undermine Russia from within. Aside from their striking contrast in tone – one hopeful, the other angry and conspiratorial – the two rallies were distinguished by the nature of the protesters. While the opposition rallies were voluntary, the pro-government rallies were compelled. State employees, including postal workers and school teachers, complained that they were threatened with fines and demotions if they refused to attend. Of those who attended the government rallies, many were paid to do so. Even then turnout failed to match the opposition rallies. As during the recent elections, the government had to compensate for the lack of genuine popular enthusiasm in the only way it knows how: by wildly inflating the official turnout.
Time will tell whether any of this will sway the Russian public. Anti-Americanism has become a standby of politics in the Putin era, offering as it does an opportunity to deflect the public’s concerns about Russia’s political stagnation and corruption onto a familiar foe. But with the ascendance of the Internet and the growing political engagement of the middle class, this message may not be as effective as it once was. More and more, Russians seem determined to hold the government to account not for what America does but for what their own leaders have failed to do.
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