Tiny Kox in Russia: will Putin win?

3 March 2012

Tiny Kox in Russia: will Putin win?

On Sunday 4th March Russia elects a new president. International observers are in the country to look into the degree to which the elections are free and fair. SP Senator Tiny Kox is head of the Council of Europe observers’ team and will report each day.

Day 3: Will Putin win?

Tiny KoxTwo permits have already been applied for, and granted, for two demonstrations, just days after Sunday’s election, one in Pushkin Square demanding a reform of the electoral system and one, to be held in the shadow of the Kremlin, in which the Putin Youth will show their support for the man whom they believe will be the new President of the Russian Federation.

Today the hyperactive leader of the Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov, came on television to explain that he had made an agreement with the authorities regarding his demonstration in Pushkin Square in order to ensure that there were no problems with the police. Udaltsov is one of those people who repeatedly gets out on to the streets to demand reforms. A brave man who for that reason often spends his days in a police cell, though recently he has been granted more freedom, which is also to be noted. He is calling on his supporters to vote for the Communist Zyuganov, the most left in his view of the five candidates. Whether they will do so remains to be seen, but whatever happens he’ll be out parading past Pushkin’s statue on Monday.

Lev Gudkov, director of the polling group Levada, tells us today that very many people are thinking of not voting on Sunday. They are angry about Putin’s government, and according to Levada’s poll 80% of the Russian people believe themselves to have no influence on what Russian politicians do or allow to happen, though a majority will nevertheless vote, either because they feel they must or because their boss or commanding officer feels that they must. Or because they think that it’s always worth a try. At the close of the count the result of the parliamentary elections, moreover, was different to what had been expected. Some 40% think that the coming election won’t be run fairly, which was also their opinion of December’s parliamentaries. But most also think that the eventual result will correspond to what most people want. At the same time half of the people interviewed support Udaltsov’s protests and other demands for fairer elections. Yet an equally large proportion is afraid of instability. Very many doubts and much uncertainty amongst many Russians, but all the same the elections are about to happen.

Tomorrow is a campaign-free day, yet there’s a good chance we’ll again see Prime Minister Putin appear on one of the country’s many TV channels. Not as a candidate, of course. He has held himself apart from the other candidates, refusing to participate in any of the countless radio and TV debates, much to the annoyance of the competition. It’s never good, state television head Dimitri Kiselev tells us. In his view Russia is measured by a different yardstick from the rest of the world when it comes to elections. Everywhere incumbent prime ministers and presidents gain an advantage from their position. Obama sings the blues with Mick Jagger, Sarkozy comes on French television to talk about everything and anything, and they all get broadcast time. 'Get real', is his advice to us, as well as to his fellow journalists, who, in a form organised by our team, talk of how they are scandalised by the way in which Putin’s candidacy is favoured by the media. Vitaly Jaroshevsky from Nova Gazeta, one of the papers which is extremely critical of Putin, strongly disapproves Putin’s warlike rhetoric, which currently portrays the entire world as an enemy. “If people look back on this campaign in a little while they’ll think that in 2012 Russia was at war with the French, the British, the Americans, the Japanese and the Chinese,” he says. He hopes that on Sunday large numbers will come out to vote. The more that vote, the less chance Putin will have of winning in the first round. Nicolaus von Twickel from the English language Moscow Times sees it, whatever else it may be, as the most exciting few days of the last five years. His paper, which happens to be edited by an old friend of mine, is delivered to my hotel and many other hotels every day. This is very useful, but most Russians don’t live in a hotel and don’t speak English, so they don’t know this fine newspaper at all. Most, especially amongst the 2/3 of the population which live outside the cities, are dependent for their information on state television, and live under the influence of local authority figures, the local council, the firm for which they work or school or college which they attend. It’s in these places that Putin will score, much more than in Moscow or St.Petersburg.

We also meet today with representatives of the diplomatic corps in Russia. Putin will win, in the first round, they tell us. Onno Elderenbosch from the Dutch embassy sees little chance for Putin’s challengers: Zirinovski shot himself in the foot by saying that all Siberians were idiots and calling all artists whores. Mironov is entirely lacking in charisma. And Zyuganov only preaches to the converted.

The briefing from the OSCE’s long-term observers proves extremely useful. They’ve been in Russia since January and follow everything that could be at all relevant – what’s said and reported in the media, how local and regional authorities view things, people’s opinions, what information is available to them. How are we going to assess in a reliable manner what happens on election day and how we should interpret this? Without these long term observers our presence here would make no sense. The Swiss OSCE ambassador Heidi Tagliavini guarantees that all we do in our final verdict is let the facts speak for themselves.

I also have a talk with her compatriot, Andy Gross, president of the social democratic group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He’s looking into to what extent Russia is fulfilling its obligations as a member state. In the autumn he will produce his report for the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, which will also involve my own reports on the parliamentary and presidential elections here.

Tomorrow I’ll be sending our troops around the country. After that I will, amongst other things, be going along to Prime Minister Putin’s headquarters, where they have finally found time for me.

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