There were no shock headlines as the votes for Russia’s new President were counted. The Kremlin had called for a 70% vote for Vladimir Putin, with a 70% turnout.

As it turned out, the Central Electoral Commission announced that he won nearly 77% of the vote on a 67% turnout.It didn’t take Putin long to return to work. At his victory concert he taunted the British government saying that his increased vote was a reaction to the anti-Russian hysteria whipped up over the murder of Sergei Skripol in Salisbury. He is expected to make some minor changes to the government as he appears to settle in for the next six years. 

Coming a distant second, with just under 12%, was the ‘Communist Party’-nominated candidate, Pavel Grudinin, followed by right wing nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovskii with under 6%. The ‘opposition’ Thatcherite-socialite, Kseniya Sobchak, got just 1.5%. The result, giving Putin the highest number of votes for any Presidential candidate since the collapse of the Soviet Union at over 56 million votes, has left the opposition, particularly the pro-western liberal opposition, demoralised and in despair. 

There should be no doubt that even if there was a fair and democratic election in Russia today, with the current political parties and candidates, Putin would win, probably with a good majority of votes. He was almost guaranteed to increase his vote by 4 million due to the additional electorate in Crimea and the decision of the ‘Just Russia’ party to withdraw their candidate in favour of Putin. 

Opposition

In previous elections, the opposition candidates have been particularly inept, but this time they were unbelievably bad. Zhirinovskii’s rating stayed pretty much the same but the ‘communist’ saw his poll drop by nearly four million – from 17% to under 12%. Although it may seem cruel to say so, the “communist” electorate is literally dying off, but this does not account for the whole of the drop in votes. The decision of the party to present the agro-businessman, Grudinin, alienated a section of the CP’s older electorate, nostalgic for ‘Soviet’ times. With his racist attitudes and support for Stalin, he did nothing to inspire the younger, increasingly rebellious, generation. 

With the CP’s uncritical support for Russia’s foreign policies, a section of the CP electorate was taken in by Putin’s rhetoric and voted for the ‘real thing’ rather than a pale imitation represented by Grudinin. This was added to by the official state propaganda which undermined the CP’s complaints about oligarchs and foreign influences; it exposed Grudinin’s thirteen or so Swiss bank accounts.

In the 2012 election, the pro-western neo-liberal opposition in the form of Mikhail Prokorov won nearly six-million votes – 8%. This year they were hammered. The two neo-liberal candidates – the old-timer Grigorii Yavlinskii and Kseniya Sobchak, said to be the god-daughter of Putin - managed just 2.7% between them. 

Sobchak in particular was seen by many as a stooge candidate, approved by the Kremlin to cut across Alexei Navalnii’s call to boycott the election. But her extravagant and arrogant lifestyle, together with provocative statements such as “Crimea is Ukrainian”, cut her off from even the traditionally more liberal electorates of Moscow and St Petersburg. Many of the votes she did win were cast by Russians living abroad. 

Rigging and turn-out

Oppositionists and western commentators have rushed to put Putin’s victory down to vote-rigging. Election fraud was not on the scale seen in the last election, but there are several videos of officials stuffing ballot boxes. In many areas polling observers were offered bribes, threatened, intimidated or simply not allowed to observe the voting. Opposition activists in Chechnya reported turn-outs of 30-40% whilst official figures report 90-100%.

They avoided the mistake this time of reporting turnouts of over 100%! Fraud on election day itself was not particularly necessary as the election did not offer a choice between equal candidates but had far more of the character of a plebiscite, in which voters were merely asked to approve the one viable candidate on offer, supported by a wave of patriotic propaganda. 

The most important result for the Kremlin was therefore the turnout. A high vote would only be credible if a large majority of the population participated. So the whole strategy was aimed at ‘encouraging’ people to vote. Even the large concert held in Moscow before the election was stage-managed. Students were told to attend and social network sites offered money to people to ensure the stadium was filled. 

On the day of the vote itself, the employers’ association organised polling stations at the large factories, students were offered exam passes or the right to miss classes. First time voters were given free tickets to pop concerts if they went to vote. 

Aftermath and protests

Whilst it would have been difficult for any opposition candidate to get a good result under these conditions, the inept and uninspiring campaigns by the opposition bear part of the responsibility. Communist nominated Pavel Grudinin even stated that the election had been fair and, having made a bet with a journalist that he would get more than 15%, was forced to shave off his moustache!

But the result also demonstrates the failure of Alexei Navalnii’s call to boycott the election. He relied purely on calls to youth to come out and demonstrate – often at considerable personal risk – without offering either a coherent programme or viable strategy to develop the struggle against corruption and authoritarianism. 

For now, a significant section of the mainly liberal opposition is in despair. Some talk of there being no hope except to emigrate. But they ignore the point that while they were unable to gain the support of the wider population, this does not mean that all opposition is finished. Indeed, the problems faced by working people continue to mount. Just in the last week, new significant protests have broken out. 

In the town of Volokolamsk, not far from Moscow, following the poisoning of children by gas escaping from a waste dump, mass protests faced down the police occupation of the town and forced the local mayor out of office. This crisis, caused by the closure of waste dumps and the inability of Moscow authorities to cope with the rapidly growing population is spreading. Residents from Pervomaiskii, another city near Moscow, are now awaiting attacks by the riot police after a 4-day blockade of the city’s main thoroughfare.

Nationally, journalists from several news outlets have launched a boycott of the State Duma after the ethics committee cleared the Head of the International Affairs committee, Leonid Slutskii, over accusations of sexual harassment against female journalists.

Navalnii and protest

Alexei Navalnii’s calls for protests against corruption over the past year have acted to rejuvenate demonstrations against the many problems faced by Russian youth in particular. But his strategy centred on his own personal participation in the election without taking up, in a systematic way, any of the real issues that worry the tens of thousands of new young activists who have turned out on illegal protests over the past year. He has left them without direction. 

One of the latest issues to emerge is the World Cup, due to be played in Russia in early summer. Students are being kicked out of their hostels to make way for the police and riot police who are being drafted into the venue cities. In Moscow, at the country’s main university, students are protesting that a large part of the university’s territory is being handed over as a “fanzone” for the duration. 

But Navalnii is not capable, at least without a radical change in his character, of being anything more than a populist figurehead. The youth protests of last year were sporadic, coinciding with the periods when Navalnii was out of detention. He made no attempt to establish any sort of viable, democratic structure, based on committees of action, that could organise and lead the movement in his absence. Neither have his policies - based as they are on support for “honest capitalism” – been able to offer any real answers, either to the problems of wages, the cost and quality of education and of housing, or on the issues of democratic and social rights. 

Only a viable and lively organisation based on the working class, particularly its youth, and armed with socialist policies can offer a genuine solution. 

Socialist Alternative is not down-hearted after this election. On the contrary, it is determined to continue its campaigning work. It is fighting for a minimum wage of 300 rubles an hour for those in work, against the harassment of women and attacks on the LGBT community. It believes that amongst dissatisfied workers and young people, it can build a vibrant and democratic socialist organisation capable of fighting for an alternative to the capitalist authoritarianism currently gripping Russia.

Addendum: Outrage in Kemerovo

The horrific fire at the shopping centre in Kemerovo, in which over 60 people died, including many children, has created huge anger against the arrogance of the authorities. On Tuesday this week, thousands of residents, including many who had lost relatives and children, gathered for hours in the city’s centre to protest

Regional politicians complained that the crowd was made up of “youth who had been whipped up in a planned act to discredit the authorities”. After the crowd started to call for their sacking one city bureaucrat spoke asking “Why the panic… I don’t understand why you are so upset. Many children die every day. Many children die, for example, from AIDS.”

National TV, after trying to ignore the fire, was then full of comments about how it had been planned - intended to stab Putin in the back. Putin, who visited the city, but avoided meeting the crowd made his usual comments about criminal neglect and punishing the guilty. His governor assured the crowd that the victims would all get a million rubles (about 25000 euros) compensation. Even this was met with angry cries: “Our children are priceless- you bast…”.

A week ago, in Kemerovo, according to official statistics, 85% voted for Putin, although this is one of ten areas where ballot-rigging was so blatant that even the Central Electoral Commission has launched an inquiry. Putin in his election victory speech said that the whole Russian nation was in “his team”. Now angry Kemerovo residents are shouting “Putin – we are in your team – where are you, you **** when we are mourning”.

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