Putin For Life?

Russia takes to the streets.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin coasted to a third presidential term in elections held on Sunday amid widespread accusations of voter fraud. He previously served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008 but was barred by law from seeking a third consecutive term. Incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev is already slated to serve as prime minister -- a deal made with Putin during last year's United Russia party congress.

With 80% of the vote counted, Putin led with 65% of ballots cast. Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov finished a distant second with 17%. Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the NBA New Jersey Nets, finished in single digits.

Putin's victory has come at a huge cost. It is sure to energize the growing opposition to his rule that has seen tens of thousands of Russians turn out for demonstrations in the dead of winter. There will also be a price to pay with regards to the steadily deteriorating relations with the United States. The US has strongly criticized the Russian government for its intransigence at the UN regarding the Syrian revolt, as well as openly siding with the protestors who are bitter over what is widely seen as a stolen parliamentary election last year.

In a victory speech on Sunday night, Putin addressed a large throng in Manezh square outside the Kremlin and, as his eyes brimmed with tears, proclaimed, "I promised that we would win and we have won! We have won in an open and honest struggle."

Most independent and opposition election observers would vehemently disagree. The many charges of vote fraud include:

"Carousel voting" where large groups of voters go from polling place to polling place to cast several ballots.

"Centralized voting" where managers of factories, schools, hospitals, and other large organizations pressure employees to vote for a candidate. Ballots are sometimes collected at the workplace.

• The Guardian reports "Two women hover over a ballot box in the industrial Russian city of Cherepovets, stuffing in ballot after ballot."

As usual, the Caucasus vote was nearly 100% for Putin and United Russia.

• Videos from various parts of the country showed numerous other cases of ballot stuffing. The independent election monitoring group Golos reports 5,000 complaints of irregularities and fraud in the vote.

"Russia has no legitimate government or legitimate president," opposition leader Alexey Navalny said. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said the election was "illegitimate, unfair and intransparent."

But Putin defiantly told the cheering crowd of supporters that "this was not only the election of president of Russia, this was a very important test for all of us, for our entire people. This was a test for political maturity, for independence.”

Protestors are planning massive rallies in Moscow and other major cities beginning Monday. Putin has warned that "unsanctioned" protests will be dealt with harshly. Moscow police -- 35,000 will be on the streets on Monday -- have called up 6,500 reserves and plans a show of force to prevent independent groups -- angry at protest organizers who have scheduled a sanctioned demonstration far from the Kremlin -- from marching to Manezh Square and pitching tents, imitating the "Occupy" movements in various western countries. A popular anti-Putin blogger has vowed to lead the unsanctioned protest, saying, “People need to go out on the streets and not leave until their demands are met."

But a confrontation with both the police and the pro-Putin youth group Nashi is likely. One activist said, "Commissars from Nashi are already sharpening their fists. They told me they will stop people pitching tents and carry them off hand and foot."

The opposition seems determined to get their point across whether the demonstrations are sanctioned or not. Mr. Navalny tweeted, "[E]verybody who would like to can peacefully and without hurry begin to move towards Manezh Square." This is an open invitation to arrest in Putin's Russia, where, since he came to power, what little freedom enjoyed by Russian citizens has been virtually snuffed out.

During Putin's first two terms, there was a gradual loss of freedom in Russia as the former head of the KGB cracked down on dissent and suppressed independent media. Newspapers and television stations that weren't driven out of business were intimidated by several high profile murders of prominent opposition journalists. Putin has also used the threat -- real or fabricated -- of Chechen terrorism to advance his political fortunes. This includes the widespread belief that the FSB (successor to the KGB) blew up an apartment building prior to the 2000 presidential election, boosting the "law and order" candidacy of Putin. The Russian president used that terrorist attack as an excuse to launch the second Chechen war.

Putin used that war to rid himself of several troublesome reporters. Kim Zigfeld of the blog LaRussophobe wrote:

Opposition journalists, especially those who dare to report on what it going on in Chechnya, suddenly start dying. In 2000 alone, reporters Igor Domnikov, Sergey Novikov, Iskandar Khatloni, Sergey Ivanov and Adam Tepsurgayev are murdered -- not by hostile fire in Chechnya but in blatant assassinations at home in Russia.

In all, 12 journalists  have been murdered since Vladimir Putin came to power.

A commission set up to investigate the 2000 apartment bombings was virtually wiped out by assassination, trumped up charges of espionage, and strong arm tactics. Several prominent opposition figures who may have challenged Putin have ended up in jail.

Restrictions on the press, on assembly, on free speech, and a return to the worst excesses of the KGB during the Communist regime has been the result of Putin's rise to power in Russia. And yet, most independent observers point out that Putin didn't need to cheat. He was guaranteed a victory because most Russians either don't see an alternative to his rule, or genuinely believe he is the only one who can give them what they desire the most: economic security.

Thus, the Russian people -- fatalistic and cynical as a result of hundreds of years of oppression -- willingly voted for a man who is likely to take away what little freedom they have left.

The United States has strongly supported the protestors in the streets and called out Putin for his electoral shenanigans. This has enraged the Russians who see this as interference in their internal affairs. Coupled with the Russian veto of UN Security Council sanctions against Syria (and their refusal to support the Libya mission), relations between the two countries is at low ebb. Progress on arms control, missile defense, and counterterrorism have all been sidetracked as Putin has adopted a "Blame the West" posture, accusing Washington of fomenting the protests and for most of the ills afflicting the country.

In short, the "reset" in relations with Russia that President Obama promised when he took office is now dead. Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post, that the reset "has been nothing more than appeasement that has allowed Russia to oppress its people with impunity and act in ways contrary to our and our allies' security interests." This is especially true of Iran where Putin has made a point of warning Israel and other nations against attacking Tehran. If there is a crackdown on protestors as Putin seems to be of a mind to initiate, there is little doubt our relations with Russia will cool even more.

Not an ally, but not quite an enemy, Vladimir Putin's Russia will continue to bedevil American policymakers for the foreseeable future. The two nations do, in fact, have some common interests especially in fighting Islamic terrorism and in promoting European security. But what is presently dividing Russia and the US threatens to do more than ruin some nonsensical "reset." What's at stake is the peace and stability of the world as the two great nuclear powers eye each other warily and try to work their way back to a stable relationship.

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