Putin wins in Russia, loses big in Moscow?
Putin still scored more than any other candidate in the capital, but at 48.7 per cent, the result would not have been sufficient to secure a first-round win. Moscow is the only region of Russia where less than half of voters supported him. It also has the sixth-lowest turnout, with just 49% of the electorate showing up to polling stations. What is it that has made so many Russians in the country’s wealthiest, most populous and most powerful city turn away from the widely-supported national leader?
Big cities, starting with Moscow, are natural hotspots of dissent in Russia, and have been this way since at least the 19th Century, when well-educated, cultured, moderate-income people became numerous enough to be a major force. Today, this stratum is behind the fierce opposition activism on the Internet and, more recently, the thousands-strong opposition rallies.
The Internet is arguably one of the most important avenues for Russia’s politically-active population. The people most strongly represented online are the young urbanites, so the opposition message is easily spread in the major cities. For instance Aleksey Navalny, an influential but controversial protest leader with nationalistic leanings, built his political capital as a blogger with an anti-corruption agenda who appealed to his audience with promises to “prod officials with a stick.”
Aleksey Navalny (RIA Novosti / Alexander Utkin)
The wave of demos that followed December’s parliamentary elections is a natural extension of this online force. The protest drive was whipped up as allegations of vote-rigging spread through the Internet and was kept alive by online action. Over the past three months, Internet news and blog sites filled up with all manner of materials, from serious debates to obscene satirical pictures.
The effort bore fruit. Two rallies in Moscow managed to break through the 100,000 threshold, which was considered a great achievement by the organizers. Some of them said the protests would spread and promised to take a million Muscovites onto the streets unless the government bent to their demands for snap parliamentary election and the release of people they considered to be political prisoners.
Meanwhile, online tensions rose as supporters of the government tried to swing public opinion in their favor. The two camps, while claiming to seek national unity, quickly became antagonistic. Pro-government activists called their opponents a gang of glamorous slackers led by foreign-paid crooks attempting to lure them into a fomenting a violent coup. The opposition believe their critics to be lackeys of the corrupt regime selling their souls for stolen money.
Vladimir Putin (R) after speaking at a rally on Manezh Square in Moscow (RIA Novosti / Aleksey Druzhinin)
The government’s response to the situation has been ambiguous. On the one hand it initially praised people’s readiness to stand up for their constitutional rights and announced a raft of reforms aimed at liberalizing Russia’s political system. On the other, too many officials, including Putin, increasingly criticized the protest in terms bordering on the insulting.
The rhetoric may have won him extra support from the majority of Russians, who value the stability and prosperity of the past decade. But it certainly managed to further alienate the opposition camp, as witnessed by the election results.
Putin is becoming the leader of rural Russia, the Russia of the national republics like Chechnya or Dagestan, the leader of the socially-vulnerable. But a growing force of independent free-thinkers is increasingly discontented with his leadership.
Igor Khokhlov, researcher at Russia’s Academy of Sciences explained to RT that these people have grown up in a different Russia, never experiencing the problems their parents faced. Hence, they take the country’s integration and steady economic growth for granted, without attributing it to Putin, for instance.
“They have a different mentality, they don’t see stability, they don’t see steady development of the economy as Putin’s achievement,” he told RT. “They find it normal, they travel a lot to Europe, and they have absolutely different demands. And Putin has proven to be a very flexible politician, meeting the needs of the Russian population. Thus, how successful he is in the next six or twelve years will depend on how flexible he is in meeting the demands of these young people”.