Once more unto the breach

Reports from Venezuela today confirmed that Venezuela president Hugo Chávez’s tumor is indeed cancerous and that the Venezuelan president will remain in Cuba for further radiation treatment. 

Chávez appeared on television Sunday to acknowledge that the two-inch growth was indeed a relapse of the cancer for which he was previously treated last year. He denied that the cancer has spread to other parts of his body and denied rumors of having suffered a post-surgery hemorrhage. Continue reading Once more unto the breach

Official Iranian parliament results

Iranian officials announced the final results of last Friday’s parliamentary elections today, confirming weekend reports that conservative supporters of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have routed conservative supporters of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With reformers and moderates largely boycotting the election, Iranian conservatives were left to contest the 290 seats in Iran’s National Consultative Assembly. With 65 seats yet to be determined in a second round in April, it appears that Ahmadinejad has been sidelined as a lame duck with just over a year to go in his second and final term as president — term limits prohibit Ahmadinejad from running in the 2013 election.  Even Parvin Ahmadinejad, the president’s sister, failed to secure a seat in the parliament from the city of Garmsar, the president’s hometown.   Continue reading Official Iranian parliament results

Largest street protests in Moscow since the Soviet Union’s fall?

UPDATE (1:15 pm ET): Alexey Navalny (@navalny), a top blogger and critic of the Putin regime, has been arrested in Moscow.

Protestors are gathering on Pushkin Square in Moscow against widespread fraud in yesterday’s Russian presidential election for what could be the largest anti-government movement since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Former Guardian Moscow correspondent Luke Harding has called this moment newly restored President Vladimir Putin’s “Brezhnev moment,” the moment where Putin stops bearing any semblance to a truly elected leader:

Sunday night was Vladimir Putin’s Brezhnev moment. It was when he ceased simply being an elected leader and segued towards a lifetime presidency. Having neatly sidestepped the rules by doing a stint as prime minister (no Russian leader can serve more than two consecutive presidential terms) Putin can now go on and on. Brezhnev did 18 years, Stalin 31. Despite the whispers of revolution lapping at the Kremlin’s walls, who would bet against Vladimir matching Leonid?

Julia Ioffe has a thoughtful column in Foreign Policy today that sets forth the fundamental choice that Putin will have to make in the days ahead in response:

What Putin decides to do come March 5 is “the central question, not because Putin decides everything in politics on March 5 but precisely because he can no longer decide everything himself,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked on Putin’s 2000 presidential campaign but was fired by the Kremlin in the last year. “It’s become a very complicated scene.” The way Pavlovsky sees it, there are two possible paths: modernize and reform the political system or “play the tsar.” The first option is the more difficult one, but should Putin choose the second door, Pavlovsky predicts, “He’ll become a prisoner of his own system, completely out of touch with reality, locked in the Kremlin and with his minions ruling in his name. And this is the worst possible outcome.”

I would put it in even starker terms: if the protests gather the kind of momentum that’s being expected, Putin will have to choose between Iran 2009 and Tunisia 2011.  Putin can “play the tsar” (which is much the same in this context as playing the ayatollah) and use brute force to kill, imprison and scare away the opposition, but in doing so will only delegitimize his regime further in the eyes of the opposition, of the international community and within the Russian elite.  Putin can compromise with the opposition, but risks a slippery-slope that leads to his downfall (much like deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) or, at the very least, the kind of embarrassing electoral re-run that occurred in 2004 after the fraudulent Ukrainian elections spawned the “Orange Revolution.”

Either result would sharply reduce Putin’s current position of strength, which should make the next 12 hours fascinating for Kremlinologists.

In the meanwhile, as protests are scheduled to get underway, we have an indication of what the future might hold:


Merkel’s new Grand Coalition

Not to be outdone by Russia’s electoral shenanigans, Der Spiegel reports that German chancellor Angela Merkel has formed a broad coalition to oppose frontrunning French presidential candidate François Hollande.  The coalition includes not only British prime minister David Cameron, who most recently snubbed Hollande on a visit to London, but also Italian prime minister Mario Monti and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

Although each of the four European leaders is more or less of the center-right, the greater sin is Hollande’s opposition to the austerity measures underlying last December’s EU-wide fiscal compact, not his innate leftism.

With polls showing Hollande still the overwhelming favorite to defeat French president Nicolas Sarkozy in the second-round runoff in May, I wonder whether Monti and Rajoy, who are presiding over two countries with high employment — even before the bite of austerity has yet to show its full force — will still be singing from the Merkel hymnbook later this year. Continue reading Merkel’s new Grand Coalition

Official Russia results

Official results are in from Russia’s Central Election Commission, notwithstanding reports of massive fraud, as reported widely on Sunday — including the use of “carousels” of voters bussed from one voting district to another with the purpose of casting multiple votes.

To no one’s surprise, the results make clear that Vladimir Putin will be returning to the Kremlin after just the first round of the presidential election, and Putin tearfully declared victory in a Sunday night victory rally.  Putin’s campaign manager Stanislav Govorukhin said the election was the “cleanest in the history of Russia,” notwithstanding thousands of individual reports of fraud.

As previously noted by commentators inside and outside Russia, however, the key question was not the election result, but rather how the Russian populace responds in the coming days, weeks and months to the victory and how the Kremlin, in turn, responds to any protests.

The Moscow Times notes that protests against fraud in both Duma and presidential elections are likely to continue through the summer. It predicts that while President-elect Putin may keep his promise to appoint outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister, he could quickly replace him with former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who has threatened to form a new liberal party in Russia.  Such a move could be seen as a concession to reformers.  Although it seems unlikely that Putin would allow Duma elections to be run again, it is conceivable that he might permit the direct election of state governors, a practice curtailed in 2004 in favor of Putin’s appointment of regional governors in the name of anti-terrorism and state security.

In The Moscow Times live blog of the vote returns, it notes a turnout of 99.59% in Chechnya, the one-time breakaway province that’s been the subject of much brutal force directed from Putin and Boris Yeltsin before him.  Astonishingly, 99.73 of Chechen voters have supported Putin.

In Moscow, Putin was held to under 50% of the vote, with just 48.25% to Prokhorov’s 19.39% and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov’s 18.96%. Prokhorov threw a party in Moscow Sunday, and declared “victory,” but was remained uncommitted to attending any rallies in protest of the vote on Monday.