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.

Putin 2018: Looking beyond Sunday’s election

The Economist‘s cover story this week features “The Beginning of the End of Putin,” with a thoughtful piece looking beyond Sunday’s election and a companion piece about how different Russia is today from the Russia that first elected Putin in 2000 — it is presumed that Putin will win, likely in the first round, and likely with some amount of electoral fraud, which was so comically and blatantly deployed in the December 2011 parliamentary elections to the Duma.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the election, there’s some doubt as to whether Putin will countenance any of the rising protests of the Russia middle class:

  • Putin is already making noises about running for reelection in 2018, which would keep him in office until 2024.
  • He’s refused to a re-run of the Duma elections from December, which were notoriously fraud ridden, sometime to comic effect, as shown in clips on YouTube.
  • News reports have placed in doubt whether current President Dmitri Medvedev, one time a proponent of more liberal reforms in Russia, will return to the prime minister’s office when Putin returns to the Kremlin.

All of which means that the popular response to Sunday’s vote matters more than the actual vote itself.

The fundamental question is not whether the inevitable Russian protests following the vote will grow, but whether the standoff will end like in Iran in 2009 or Tunisia in 2011. Stay tuned.

Iranian parliamentary elections: in the shadows of 2009 and 2013

Iranaian voters went to the polls today in a parliamentary election that will determine who fills the 290 seats of the National Consultative Assembly of Iran.

Hooman Majd, the author of two books on Iranian political system and governance, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran and The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, spoke with Al Jazeera’s The Stream yesterday (video above) to discuss the current state of internal Iranian politics.

In the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election, which was widely seen as rigged by incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, key leaders of the opposition, which came to be known as the “Green movement,” are boycotting today’s election, including former moderate president Mohammad Khatami, and many reformers — including presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and moderate refomer Mehdi Karroubi — remain under house arrest.

Accordingly, given that fewer reformers were allowed to stand for legislative elections, with other Green movement leaders laced under house arrest or otherwise quieted, and with the remaining reformers simply boycotting today’s election, it is expected that various groups of conservatives will win decisively today and make further gains.  In particular, the election has pitted one group of pro-Ahmadinejad conservatives against another group of more anti-Ahmadinejad (and pro-Khamenei) conservatives, as described today in an editorial in The New York Times by Ardeshir Amir-Arjomand, a professor of international law and adviser to Mousavi, who declared today’s election a farce:

There are no genuine ideological differences between these factions; what motivates them is a lust for power and control of the country’s oil wealth. And they are competing in a polemical race to describe how they would “stamp out” what, in official spin, is labeled as the “remnants of the sedition” — officialese for Iran’s popular Green protest movement, which was brutally attacked three years ago but has nevertheless survived.     Continue reading Iranian parliamentary elections: in the shadows of 2009 and 2013

Make that the Camerkozy campaign

Just three months ago, the video shown above from yet another EU summit set tongues wagging on both sides of the English Channel: was French President Nicolas Sarkozy so angry with UK Prime Minister David Cameron that he’d brush past his outstretched hand?

Cameron had just exercised the United Kingdom’s first-ever veto of a European Union fiscal treaty that would have brought the EU countries into greater fiscal policy alignment (presumably toward more austerity, as favored by Cameron, Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel).  Although the remaining 26 EU countries signed up to a “compact” of the EU countries (sans the UK), the exercise of the veto was very much in keeping with the UK’s longtime role as Europe’s most stubborn citizen, much to the anguish of Sarkozy and the rest of Europe.

So it may be surprising to see that Cameron did not meet with frontrunning Parti socialiste presidential candidate François Hollande during his trip to London this week, and even more surprising to read Cameron’s very pro-Sarkozy statements to Le Figaro last week, in which Cameron made clear that he is strongly supporting Sarkozy’s reelection bid, with an endorsement that’s very nearly as strong as the endorsement Merkel provided earlier in February: Continue reading Make that the Camerkozy campaign

Hollande in Paris-on-the-Thames

Frecnh presidential frontrunner François Hollande went to London yesterday, campaigning in a city with som many French residents that it’s often called Paris-on-the-Thames.  A clip from The Guardian above shows Hollande meeting with the UK Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband at King’s College, London.

Traditionally, most French voters based in the UK have been based in London and, in particular, the City of London, home to London’s financial industry, one of the world’s centers of global finance.  With over 400,000 French residents, it is home to more French citizens than all but Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse, and typically, those French voters have leaned to the right.

But that may be changing.  With a more subdued financial industry and ever-closer links across Europe, French citizens in London these days are less likely to be global bankers than everyday people studying, teaching or working outside the City. Continue reading Hollande in Paris-on-the-Thames

Senegal vote heads to runoff

As early results indicated, Senegal election officials confirmed today that President Abdoulaye Wade received only 34.8% of the first round vote and will go into a runoff on March 18 against former prime minister Macky Sall, who received 26.5%. 

In the ensuing 18 days, the media spotlight will shift to three key questions:

  • Can Wade win a runoff vote? Almost two-thirds of the electorate voted against Wade. To win a runoff vote, Wade would have to (i) retain all of his first-round support, (ii) win around one of every four of the anti-Wade voters in the first round and (iii) win more than 50% of any new voters who participate in the second round. This seems like an implausible hurdle for the unpopular incumbent.
  • What would Sall do as President?  Greater scrutiny will now fall on Sall, his former ties to Wade, his falling out with Wade and charges of money laundering and corruption. He will certainly have to discuss his role in the Wade administration and its lack of policy progress. Already, however, Sall has pledged to abide the two-term presidential limit and has advocated reducing the presidential term back to five years (Wade’s constitutional changes had increased the term to seven).
  • Can the opposition effectively unite against Wade?  Another prime minister, Moustapha Niasse, placed third with 13.2% of the vote. Niasse is already on record as supporting a unified opposition against Wade, whose candidacy — potentially in violation of the constitutional two-term limit — has sparked protests across the country.  The broad-based M23 coalition and other groups are well placed to bring together all of the opposition candidates to discuss a unified left-right front under Sall’s second-round candidacy.  Barring any deal between Wade and Sall, it appears very likely that the Wade opposition will be unified, in some degree, behind Sall.

One week in, polls a mixed bag for Sarkozy

It’s been a relatively steady week and a half since French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced his candidacy for reelection with a mix of populist stances with respect to France and steady-ship statesmanship with respect to Europe, all the while showing some of the frenetic energy that won the Élysée in 2007.

The first crop of post-announcement polls show that Sarkozy is catching up to Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande in the first round, but still faces a double-digit gap in a second-round runoff against Hollande.

An Ipsos poll released today is demonstrative.

In the first round, the distribution of current voting intentions is as follows:

  • François Hollande — 31.5%
  • Nicolas Sarkozy — 27%
  • Marine Le Pen — 16%
  • François Bayrou — 11%
  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon — 8%
  • Eva Joly — 2.5%
  • Dominique de Villepin — 1%
  • Nicolas-Dupont Aignan — 1%

In the second round, however, Hollande leads Sarkozy by a 58% to 42% margin. Continue reading One week in, polls a mixed bag for Sarkozy

It’s generally not a good sign…

…when the president of the country announces piece-meal election results in a press conference, bypassing the official state apparatus.

For the record, Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade declared that he is leading with about half of the votes counted with about 32% to 25% for former prime minister Macky Sall.

UPDATE: Wade has now acknowledged that the race will likely go to a runoff — to be held March 18, in which it is likely that all opposition candidates will form a united front against Wade’s reelection.

Kremlin Kops or Keystone Kops?

After a weekend in which anti-Putin protestors united in a ring of defiance around the Kremlin, truly wacky reports have surfaced of a potential assassination plot against Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, stymied by Ukrainian security forces:

The Russian prime minister’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told the BBC “this was absolutely a plot to kill the prime minister.”

It seems not outside the realm of possibility that Ukraine’s government, which is currently controlled by pro-Russian factions under pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, could be convinced to help legitimize the gravity of the plot.  Certainly, the Kremlin ploy helps to distract, in part, from anti-Putin protests just six days in advance of the first round of Russia’s presidential election.

In a piece in The Guardian yesterday, Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed by Putin a decade ago and removed as CEO of Yukos Oil, advocates a vote for any of the four opponents to Putin, thereby forcing Putin into a second-round runoff vote.  He compares the recent grassroots protests against Putin to the Arab Spring protests of 2011 that toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt:

By forcing a second round we will push our country down the path of positive change. Presidential power that previously answered to no one would have to start listening to the people it serves. The state that until now took the monopolistic presidential power for granted would be more wary of its hold and start moderating its behaviour. The politicians who gathered the opposition votes could become a force to be reckoned with, a voice for articulating the thoughts and views that have been ignored before. The establishment would have to start negotiating with the opposition and an evolutionary transition could meaningfully begin. Continue reading Kremlin Kops or Keystone Kops?

Zhirinovsky vs. the donkey


In my ongoing series of odd campaign video from Russia’s upcoming presidential election vote, here’s ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky flogging a donkey from earlier this month.  It’s unclear what exactly the point is here.

Zhirinovsky is one of the truly scary clowns of Russia’s political scene. In 1995, he threw a box of juice at an opponent on television.  In 1996, he called for recreating the Russian Empire and expanding it to the Indian Ocean and reclaiming Alaska from the United States.  He once promised free vodka to all Russians if elected.  He’s anti-Zionist, anti-Caucuses, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-Western, anti-African, and you really could fill a book with outrageous Zhirinovsky quotes.  Much, much more here, and that’s just for starters.

From a 1994 article:

In numerous speeches and articles, Zhirinovsky has promised to bury radioactive waste on the borders of the Baltic states, turn Kazakhstan into Russia’s back yard,” provoke internecine wars between the clans and the peoples of Russia’s so-called near abroad (the former Soviet Union) and occupy what will remain of it when the war is over. The masthead of his movement’s magazine, Zhirinovsky’s Hawk, displays a map of Russia that includes Finland, Poland and Alaska, in addition to all of the former Soviet republics.

Of course, his importance as a figure in Russian politics has long since ebbed from its high-water mark in 1995-96.  But I’ve considered him for over a decade the personification of Russia’s nationalist id, which can sometimes be quite ugly and dark indeed.

Senegal: Early returns indicate runoff

Early reports of returns from Senegal’s presidential election yesterday indicate that current president Abdoulaye Wade leads former prime minister Macky Sall in the first-round ballot by only a 24% to 21% margin, although other reports claimed Wade had around 32% to Sall’s 28%.

Without an outright majority, Wade (pictured above, top) would be forced into a runoff with Sall (pictured above, below) — presumably given the massive opposition to Wade’s run on the basis of a constitutional limit of two terms, it can be expected that the opposition, headed by M23 and other umbrella groups, including supporters of Youssou N’Dour (the popular rapper who was not permitted to stand in the presidential election), will unite behind Sall in the second round.

Given Senegal’s tradition as a nation that has generally respected democratic norms — there have been no coups and no civil wars there since independence in 1960 — Wade would presumably recognize a Sall second-round victory and step down from office.

The next key date is Friday, March 2, when official results are announced. Continue reading Senegal: Early returns indicate runoff

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