Putin Is Back In The Hot Seat


On Sunday, the European media were almost unanimous — Vladimir Putin’s first-round victory in the Russian presidential election, where he won 63 per cent of the votes according to early results, was "overshadowed by charges of voting irregularities", as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) put it.

Elected to a six-year term, Putin declared that Russia, the largest country on earth, had passed what had become a "test of the independence and maturity of the country" in his victory oration, delivered near Moscow’s Kremlin, says FAZ’s Moscow correspondent. Yet, if you go by some of the reports that appeared in the European press on Sunday night, it is anything but clear that Russia did pass that test.

Stockholm daily Svenska Dagsbladet featured an interview with Lilia Sjibanov, chairwoman of Russian election monitoring group Golos. Sjibanov alleged "large-scale" fraud helped Putin to victory. She said, while the results obtained through its election monitoring still had to be further refined, two rounds of surveys conducted across Moscow on Sunday found "more than 2000 cases" of reported fraud.

And electoral observers were prevented from entering 13 per cent of Moscow polling places, election monitor Sjibanov told Svenska Dagsbladet.

Perhaps as a result of this, few of Putin’s rivals are prepared to concede he won the election honestly, reports Rome’s La Repubblica. It quotes the second-placed candidate, serial communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who denounced the role the "tentacles of the mafia" had played in the outcome — tentacles that he claimed were wrapped around the electoral commission.

And the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, asserted that there were "grave doubts that the result of the vote reflect[ed]the mood of the country" — while adding that he had not seen evidence of "vote rigging en masse".

La Repubblica adds that the anger felt by many of Putin’s political opponents was supplemented by rage in the Russian capital. The paper says that Moscow is awaiting further official results amid a high level of "tension". "At least 24 demonstrations are planned for tonight and tomorrow morning," explains the paper.

"The opposition is promising to fill Pushkinskaya Square", where a rally convoked by the movement called "For Honest Elections" was underway on Sunday night, says La Repubblica. That group has repeatedly brought tens of thousands onto the streets since last December’s parliamentary poll, concludes the paper.

Putin won the presidential vote on Sunday despite weeks of demonstrations against the results of December’s allegedly manipulated parliamentary election, and in spite of "falling popularity", says French evening paper Le Monde. The paper’s analysis begins in September, when Putin committed what Le Monde asserts was the "biggest mistake of his career" — his decision to return to the Kremlin for another term.

When he announced on 24 September that he and then President Dmitri Medvedev would again swap roles, this "was perceived by a large number of Russians as a trick; as a choice made in the backroom, over which they had little choice", says the paper.

Le Monde quotes sociologist Ivor Kliamkine, the author of numerous works on Russia under Putin: "It’s the beginning of the end for him. The mood of the population has changed a great deal over the past few months. The intelligentsia has turned against him. Putin is no longer popular … and things won’t go back to the way they were."

Putin’s response to popular rancour will be the greatest test of the early part of his new mandate, agrees Spanish daily El País. The Madrid paper profiles Putin, who the paper says was popular in his first two terms as president because "many Russians saw him as a strong leader capable of [rescuing]a Russia that was on its knees" after the loss in geopolitical and internal stability under former President Boris Yeltsin.

But, adds El País, "this image was supplemented by others less favourable to the Russian leader". Namely, "that of patron and participant in a web of corruption comprising people whose common denominator is enjoying [Putin’s] favour". Indeed, the "incestuous" nature of Putin’s elite has become a "brake" on the "rise of new, well-educated generations of Russians with a rational vision of the world", argues El País.

Putin’s elite are a tight clique of friends, relatives, associates and former colleagues from the Russian secret service who have become "incredibly rich during the 12 years that Putin has been lead[ing]Russia", says Rio De Janiero paper O Globo, which investigated Putin’s "Midas Touch":

"Arkady Rotenberg, a former Judo trainer, went on to sell pipes and tubes to sell pipes and tubes to Russian state-owned gas company, and is today a billionaire. Yuri Kovalchuk, who once held a small share in a St. Petersburg bank, today holds some of the same bank’s subsidiaries and has [accrued]a fortune valued at US$1.5 billion. Gennady Timchenko was sales director at a local refinery. Today, one of richest men on earth, he holds contracts with state oil company Rosneft, with a turnover of around US$70 billion a year."

And although Putin has always denied granting favours to these and other beneficiaries, and of secretly benefiting from their success, O Globo says it has proof that the Russian leader himself has had built a billion dollar resort on the shores of the Black Sea: "Sergei Koleshnikov, a former associate of Putin, recently left Russia with a collection of documents which apparently support claims [Putin] is connected to the resort."

With allegations of personal corruption, rigged voting and civic unrest likely to continue to preoccupy the international media in the weeks to come, Putin’s victory is a chimeric one, comments Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung:

"Election day revealed the increasing irreconcilability between the state and its critics. Opposition complaints about voting fraud were immediately dismissed by the Interior Ministry. Ignorance on one side, rage on the other; the country is drifting towards a dangerous situation where Russian society is increasingly split into Putin supporters and Putin opponents. The next few days will reveal how large the gap between the state and the people really is, if the pressure valve has been released, and if Russians can really live with the outcome [of the vote]after all."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.