Archive for March, 2012

The Last Waltz

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

MOSCOW – On a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon, thousands of Muscovites came out to protest the March 4 presidential elections in which Vladimir Putin swept to his third presidential term with more than 63 percent of the vote. It was not the huge, euphoric, smiling crowd that thronged the city’s squares in December and February. But it was also not the angry, sullen crowd that had come out to Pushkin Square the day after the election.

Many hadn’t come at all, either because they were tired of coming out — this was the sixth large protest in three months — or because they were out of town for a long weekend. Those who did show up seemed deflated. Gone was the electricity in the air, the witty posters. Many had come not because of a new, giddy sense of empowerment that fueled the initial protests, or even out of anger over a crooked electoral system, but because they felt they simply had to.

“If I didn’t come today, it would mean that I deserve this government,” Elena, a professor at Moscow State University, told me, adding that she was coming to the inexorable conclusion that she wanted to emigrate.

“Without steps to change and enforce the law, I don’t see a point in these protests,” said another Elena, a young lawyer who was there with her boss. He did not have much faith in the political reforms proposed by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev — gubernatorial elections and an easing of party registration rules.

“I think that it’s important not to lose what we’ve gained in these months,” a white-collar worker in his thirties named Petr said. And yet, he felt the momentum dissipating. “Of course, we’re going to keep coming to these protests,” he said of himself and his friends, who both work in state-owned television. “But I think this format is starting to feel a little old. I think the protest organizers need to think of something else.”

The rally’s organizers, for their part, seem to have heard their constituency. “I think that, with this, the three-month cycle [of protests] has ended,” journalist and ring leader of the rallies’ organizing committee Serguei Parkhomenko told the press. “There will be new events, without a doubt, but only when there is a need for them. We’re not going to organize them automatically.” Members of the organizing committee have spoken of flash mobs, like last month’s Big White Circle, a smiling human chain around the 10-mile circumference of Moscow’s Garden Ring road, and events with a more aggressive bent.

And indeed, after a week of soul-searching and post-mortems of “the revolution,” the rally felt like the closing chord of a long and ebullient improvisation. Earlier this week, at a press conference held by the Voters’ League, organized by several public intellectuals to help train election monitors, writer Boris Akunin — another central figure in this winter’s movement — declared the “romantic” period of the protests over. A couple of days earlier, the police violently broke up a protest by a few hundred people who tried to stay on Pushkin Square after a permitted mass rally, and Putin congratulated the police on their “professional” behavior. “I think people have understood that they can’t charge the OMON with white balloons and ribbons,” Akunin said at the press conference, referring to the special police that enforce order at such events, and to the ubiquitous symbols of the protests. “Civil society will begin to develop along a different trajectory, along a trajectory of self-organization, and fighting for victory in local elections,” Akunin added.

If past protests were organized around the vague demand of fair elections — or new parliamentary elections — and to chant the charged but useless slogan “Russia without Putin,” Saturday’s rally was centered on thanking election monitors. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people, riding the wave of the winter’s giddiness, had signed up to monitor elections. More than 80,000 people in Moscow, and more than 130,000 nationwide volunteered for the tedious work of breathing down the necks of members of local election committees — the cogs in the great machine that would keep falsifying the vote, even when Putin’s press secretary declared that it was Putin, first and foremost, who was interested in a clean election. (When I traveled to Irkutsk in the weeks before the election, local party leaders told me the puzzling command from Moscow was victory for Putin in the first round — that is, over 51 percent — but no violations.)

Tens of thousands of these people, young and old, and, as one observer pointed out, used to comfort, stayed up till dawn on a Sunday night to make sure the votes were counted properly. Most of my Russian friends had signed up to be observers, many of them later bragged how many votes they had “saved” for one candidate or another. This winter, in other words, tedious but necessary political work has become not only a trend, but a necessity for a lot of these people.

At Saturday’s rally, the microphone also went to the young hipster candidates who had run and won in the city’s municipal elections (concurrent with the presidential vote). Vera Kichanova, a 20-year-old journalism student who won one such race, challenged the Kremlin’s campaign to paint this movement as an Orange Revolution. “Did you see bodies in the street in Tbilisi?” she asked, referring to Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. “I think that local citizens understand their own needs far better than some bureaucrats,” she went on, as the crowd began to chant spontaneously: “Good job! Good job!” When Parkhomenko spoke after her, he spoke not of the Duma vote or the evils of Putin’s corrupt regime, but of the elections for Moscow city parliament (it is still unclear when those will take place). Putin’s United Russia now has 32 out of 35 seats.

“We’re at the beginning of a long and arduous journey,” said Petr Shkumatov, of the Blue Buckets movement against abuse of VIP sirens, from the stage. “We have many kilometers and many years ahead of us, and we will trip a lot. But, one way or another, we have to complete this journey. We’ve already started, and no one, I don’t think, can take a step back.”

No one expected Putin to relinquish power or to lose the presidential election; no one even expected new Duma elections. From where I sit, the fact that the opposition was not handed an easy victory is a good thing: things that are easily won are easily squandered. Broadening participation in the kind of grassroots, civic, local organization that people like anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny or Blue Buckets have been doing for the last couple of years — rather than quick and sweeping political change — may be just what Russia needs.

The scary unknown, of course, is Putin’s reaction to all this. He worked to largely eliminate civil society during his first two terms as president. Will he also work to make the lives of a new generation of civic activists difficult in his third term? Or will he simply dig in his heels and ignore them? This may be just as bad: it’s hard to continue to give yourself over to tedious civic work when you’re working full time as, say, a lawyer, and your political extracurricular activities reap little to no reward.

The fact that Putin is unlikely to not sabotage this movement and the fact that his is the last rally — miting, in Russian — for a while, means the obituaries of the winter’s movement are premature. On December 5, a day after the disputed parliamentary elections, some 6,000 people had come out to protest — 20 times more than most opposition protests ever gathered in Putin’s era. That night, Navalny was arrested. By the time he came out, fifteen days later, protests were gathering ten times that. “I went to jail in one country and came out in another,” Navalny told supporters when he left prison.

On March 5, Moscow’s protesting middle class bemoaned the fact that, after all they had experienced this winter, Putin was still their president for the foreseeable future, that they didn’t, as many put it, “wake up in a different country.” Estimates of Saturday’s rally attendance put the crowd somewhere between 25,000 (the rally’s organizers) and 10,000 (the police). And yet, many bemoaned the fact that this was a small crowd, a sign in and of itself of how much times had changed.

The question now is not only whether Putin ignores them, but whether this crowd and their sympathizers in Moscow and, to a smaller extent, around the country, go back to sleep or or stay woken up in that different country.

The Last Waltz [FP]

Nobody’s Bigger Than Bidzina

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

One brilliantly sunny morning in January, a Ford SUV took me to Chorvila, the remote mountain town in central Georgia where Bidzina Ivanishvili was born. While the surrounding area is all mud and poverty, Chorvila’s streets are clean and lined with neat rows of two-story homes in pastel stucco with bright red roofs. Many residents, especially the sick, the ­disabled, the orphaned and families with many children, get generous monthly stipends. There’s free medical care, free TVs and VCRs and, for 17,000 fortunate people, free gas stoves.

All of it—the home building, stipends, health care, TVs, stoves, plus 40 rebuilt schools and a renovated hospital—have been paid for by Ivanishvili. The largest employer in the area is Ivanishvili. My driver works for Ivanishvili. Just about anything new we drove by, including a house that belongs to the woman who does Ivanishvili’s wife’s nails, one of my guides proudly pointed to and said, “Bidzina built that.” At Chor­vila’s heart is Ivanishvili’s contemporary castle, his old place carved into the cliffs, with massive windows facing the Racha Mountains. It has a huge athletic complex and a zoo with ring-tailed lemurs, deer, flamingos, penguins and a kangaroo the caretaker kicked out into the cold to show me it exists.

Ivanishvili, 56, has built Chorvila into what amounts to an alpine fiefdom smack in the middle of the country. Almost everyone I met, as if they were warned an American journalist was coming to visit, was wearing a political campaign T-shirt or a scarf with a heptagonal star, symbol of Ivanishvili’s new political party, Georgian Dream.

“It is a feudal town,” boasts Vazhe Gavasheli, a security expert with Ivanishvili’s construction company.

The best way to fathom the influence and impact Bid­zina Ivanishvili has in the former Soviet republic of Georgia would be to imagine that a businessman worth $8 trillion—Ivanishvili’s $6 billion net worth is half of Georgia’s GDP—had established a statewide system of philanthropic patronage in, say, West Virginia and the whole state was subservient to him. He has paid to repair the state university in Tbilisi and refurbish its biggest theaters. His name is on national parks, ski resorts and medical clinics.

Now that he is running for prime minister, it’s enough to make any sitting president, let alone Georgia’s volatile, ­jealous, power-hungry Mikheil Saakashvili, feel threatened.

Five months ago Ivanishvili announced he was going to form Georgian Dream to put up candidates in the country’s parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall. In his opening salvo he accused Saakashvili, a darling of the West, of consolidating a “total monopoly” on political power in the eight years since he came to power in the peaceful Rose Revo­lution in 2003. Ivanishvili used to be one of Saakashvili’s biggest political and financial supporters. Three years ago the two most powerful men in the country broke off their relationship. Ivanishvili says he and his people have been harassed by the government ever since. His decision to enter politics and become a public citizen may just be for his own protection. But Ivanishvili has an even more fundamental quibble with Saakashvili, and it is a quintessentially Georgian one. “He doesn’t understand what love is,” he says, completely seriously. “How can a person like that rule a country?”

Ivanishvili’s announcement shocked Tbilisi. Georgians instantly projected their hopes of a freer, more prosperous country onto him. Saakashvili is widely credited with bringing prosperity and calm in his first five years, but Georgia’s lifeblood of foreign direct investment has yet to return to the levels reached prior to its skirmish with Russia in 2008, mostly because it no longer has diplomatic ties with its closest and most logical trade partner. Half of the country lives below the poverty line and unemployment hovers at 16%. “In the last couple of years there’s been a perception that we’re sliding back. Funds are starting to dry up; not much effort is being made to rebuild the economy,” says Esben Emborg, the chairman of the local branch of the American Chamber of Commerce.

Before he announced his run, few people in Georgia had ever really seen Ivanishvili. He had given few interviews, and photographic evidence of him was scarce. He was said to have albino children, to travel everywhere by helicopter, to have thrown a school reunion and left a key to a new car under everyone’s napkin. Much of the city’s intelligentsia was on his payroll, maybe even the police. He made his money, the stories went, by moving to Russia, changing his name to Boris Ivanov and selling pillowcases to the Turks. Or was it computers? Or was it in gold mining? He had a massive house—or was it a business center?—in the mountains overlooking Tbilisi, but what went on up there? Saakashvili once called him “the Count of Monte Cristo.”

Years of hiding from the spotlight prepared him poorly for his political debut. Three days after Ivanishvili unveiled his Georgian Dream, he and his wife had their Georgian citizenship revoked. (Saakashvili’s representative had no comment whatsoever regarding Ivanishvili.) Three weeks later an Ivanishvili bank was raided by the government. Saakashvili and his allies have also made some rather weak attempts to discredit Ivanishvili as a Kremlin project. There is no ­evidence to support that claim but, just to avoid any conflicts of interest, Ivanishvili has vowed to sell his remaining banking, retail, construction and agribusiness assets in Russia. Most of his wealth now is in art, gold and liquid Russian and American stocks. He says he hasn’t been in Russia in ten years and recently renounced his Russian citizenship. “When Putin came to power I started packing my bags,” he tells me, suddenly getting nervous for saying that to a reporter because, if Ivanishvili becomes prime minister, “I’ll have to work with him.”

That prospect of a victory is what really fuels his days. “In a year, I guarantee you—I’ve never given such guarantees to anyone before—in a year I will build a pure democracy and independent courts here,” he says, with a Georgian’s tendency to exaggerate. I ask him how he plans to achieve such a task in such a short period of time. “Very easy,” he says, before flashing that other ­national trademark: ruthlessness. “You have to jail one minister—two, max—to show everyone that there will be no forgiveness. Show that there’s political will up there, and it will all line up quickly. We need two, three years for a European-style system.” He adds, “But the economy—the economy will take longer to build.”

I met with Ivanishvili once for an off-the-record dinner and again for a four-hour interview at his compound, and was invited over a third time for tea with both his wife, Ekaterine, and his youngest son, Tsotne, who is indeed an albino. “I have two albino sons, you know!” Ivanishvili tells me, proudly— twice. “It’s really rare, and I have two out of four!” (One of them, Bera, is a rapper.) During tea with Ekaterine, Ivanishvili heard that I was in the house, and he decided to just drop by and share his vision of how he sees his own portrait. “I was very good at business; there is none better,” he says.

At 56 Ivanishvili is thin, short and sprightly, with a gray-flecked widow’s peak skimming the top of his smooth, friendly face. He spends most days inside his $40 million fortress, a Shin Takamatsu-designed complex on the bluffs overlooking Tbilisi. The 108,000-square-foot compound is a geometric puzzle of glass cylinders, metal tubes and funnel and can shapes. It has both a house and a business center, which can be hard to distinguish.

His office here is all clean lines, sleek red leather chairs, a glass conference table and expensive art everywhere. A $40 million Egon Schiele hangs over his desk. A Lucian Freud looks over the couches; there’s a Monet in the corner. “That’s my favorite,” he says, tossing his thumb at a huge, red-streaked De Kooning behind him. They’re all fakes. Around the time he launched his political campaign, Ivanishvili had the originals moved to London. “It’s safer that way. It’s expensive to secure art in Georgia, and our government is unpredictable.”

Ivanishvili, the youngest of five children, was born in Chorvila in February 1956 to a miner and a homemaker. The whole village was very poor. “Sometimes we could buy shoes, but weren’t always lucky,” Ivanishvili says. “We got electricity when I was 7 or 8. Radio when I was 14 or 15. Then television. So we spent most of our time outside, but we worked a lot. Everyone had to work.” By 13 Ivanishvili was organizing construction brigades. But he was also a diligent student. He paid for night school by sweeping metal shavings in a steel mill. He rose quickly through the factory ranks and was promoted to the head of economic development, a position he turned down. His contacts in the industry were making their money operating underground metal workshops, and his factory had also become the center of a platinum- and diamond-smuggling ring. “It scared me. If you were to move forward, you become a quasi-criminal. I didn’t really want this.”

Instead, in 1984 he went to Moscow, learned Russian and earned a Ph.D. in labor economy. He fell in with a group of Moscow boys who, he says, made him read the right books, the ones he’d missed out on in Chorvila. One of the young men was Vitaly Malkin, who would become Ivanishvili’s business partner. Malkin and Ivanishvili teamed up with two other classmates and, with Gorbachev relaxing the rules about commerce in the Soviet Union, started a business selling computers and push-button phones. By 1990 they had made about $100,000. It was a colossal sum in those days, “enough to start four banks,” Ivanishvili says. Instead, he and Malkin bought out their partners and formed a bank they called Rossiisskii Kredit. It was one of the first banks registered in Russia and quickly became one of the biggest. Six years after its formation it was the seventh largest by assets.

Ivanishvili attributes the bank’s success to its strength in the retail sector. But RK also had very important depositors: It became the authorized bank for a number of state organizations, including the tax and customs authorities. It was also very closely connected to the parliamentary committee on precious metals, which was responsible for cobbling together vertically integrated production chains out of the remnants of the Soviet industrial empire. When those factories and mines started to be put up for privatization, Ivanishvili’s RK started to snap them up at bargain-basement prices using the money of its depositors, something Ivanishvili acknowledges may not have been fully kosher. He focused mostly on metals and precious metals, an area he understood from his days on the factory floor in Tbilisi.

RK made a lot of money on these properties: Ivanishvili bought shares of the Stoilinsky Mining & Processing Plant in 1991 for $150,000. He sold them 15 years later for $500 million. These vertically integrated investments also kept RK in­de­pen­dent of anyone else. When, in the 1990s, the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development introduced a program to twin nascent Russian banks with Western institutions, Russian banks had to open their books to the EBRD. RK didn’t even begin the process. It was doing fine on its own.

Ivanishvili insists his record is clean. “Those who say I broke the law, let them prove it,” he says. But RK was a giant in a dangerous industry in a very rough-and-tumble time, a time when it was unclear what laws there were to be broken. RK owned shares of an aluminum processing plant in Krasnoyarsk, a gritty Siberian city that became the epicenter of the so-called Aluminum Wars, in which scores were killed. Ivanishvili insists he quickly sold out—for 20 times the purchase price—as soon as things got dangerous, but in talking about the time Ivanishvili lets slip a few details that hint at just how bad it got. There was the time he got the threatening phone call in the middle of the night while vacationing in Saint-Tropez; the hit men his rivals had sent gunning for him; the factory director—a mole—he dangled from the balcony by the lapels; and the partner who had been met at the Krasnoyarsk airport by thugs who then gave him a tour of the local cemetery, pointing out those who had died for aluminum. “My main values are life and freedom,” Ivanishvili says of his decision to get out of aluminum. “If you look at the history of that time, how many died and how many aren’t free now. Oh my, my.”

RK took a big hit in 1998, when the state defaulted on its debt and devalued its currency, sending Russia into economic collapse. But Ivanishvili’s personal assets in gold and metals held up in value. (He finally bailed out of gold last year in a massive sale of an estimated 31 tons near the top of the market: a $1.7 billion take-home after taxes.)

Ivanishvili left Russia in 2002 to join his family in France but began to feel restless. He collected art, a lot of it, amassing a collection now worth at least $1 billion. He began construction on his Tbilisi compound and moved back in 2003, just in time for Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution. That peaceful transition ended years of economic ­torpor, civil war and corruption. The new leader had charisma and a free-market approach that attracted a wave of foreign investment. “I was very happy when Saakashvili came to power,” says Ivanishvili. “I thought it was a dream government.”

For a while the billionaire invisibly supported the Saakashvili government, laying out as much as $100 million to buy new police cars and to rebuild army barracks and reoutfit Georgian soldiers, who were walking around in jeans and flip-flops. He says he even offered to bankroll a big raise in ministers’ salaries to make corruption less appealing.

But Ivanishvili began to despair at what he saw as privatization of public spending and a disastrously antagonistic stance toward Russia. Saakashvili was stretching the patience of businessmen on whom he leaned frequently to fund government initiatives or things like celebrity New Year’s concerts. “All we ask for is predictability. We want to be able to plan,” says one Western businessman who asked to remain anonymous because, he says, “I still have to do business here.”

Ivanishvili lost his trust in the system when Saakashvili engaged in what Ivanishvili claims were dubious tactics to win the 2008 elections. “I called him and said, toughly, strictly, that I don’t want to talk to him anymore,” Ivanishvili says.

That’s when the harassment began, according to the billionaire. “From time to time they made themselves known. They blocked deals. They showed their teeth. They said, ‘Make up your mind: Are you with us or against us?’ I was the last free person left. I was very uncomfortable for them.” He declines to go into detail, although Ekaterine told me tales of several of their relatives’ being arrested and told to call Ivanishvili for ransom.

Ivanishvili planned to decamp to France. The pressure was getting to be too much. But his family was against it and, agonizing over what to do, he says he canceled the plane twice. Finally he decided to take the fight with Saakashvili ­public.

Five months into his campaign Ivanishvili has yet to produce a detailed platform. Ivanishvili has said he wants to bring Georgia into NATO and the EU while repairing relations with Russia. These goals would be exceedingly difficult to reconcile. Some who had cheered his appearance have grown disillusioned by his lack of political acumen.

“I think he underestimated politics,” says Emborg. “He’s obviously extremely green. It amazes me that you have that amount of money and you wouldn’t hire the best con­sul­tants and p.r. people in the business.”

Yet legions of Georgians love Ivanishvili for his years of philanthropic patronage. Shortly after the government revoked his citizenship, the Georgian Central Bank opened a money-laundering investigation and seized a shipment of $2 million and $1 million euros belonging to Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank. Thousands of Georgians flocked to the bank to open accounts in a show of support. The money has been returned to Cartu Bank, but the investigation is ongoing.

“Everything a person does, he does for himself,” Ivanishvili tells me in his office. “Let’s not kid ourselves. This is my homeland. I feel better, more comfortable here. My friends, my parents, my relatives are here. So it turns out I’m doing it for myself,” he says. “Going into politics is good protection.”

Nobody’s Bigger Than Bidzina [Forbes]

‘This Is How You Elect a F*cking President?’

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

MOSCOW — When Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov left Pushkin Square Monday night, the crowd — estimated by the police at 14,000 — was just starting to disperse. They had stood for two hours in sub-zero temperatures, not 24 hours after Vladimir Putin wept after sweeping to victory in Sunday’s presidential race with 63.6 percent of the vote. They had listened to speeches from the whole gamut of the opposition — the leftists, the nationalists, Alexey Navalny, Mikhail Prokhorov, all had their turn at the microphone. They chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “We are the power!” They weren’t as cheerful as they’d been in past protests, but they were peaceful, despite the crowd of Putin supporters that had arrived from central casting.

Gudkov, who represents the Just Russia party and has been a central figure in this winter’s opposition protests, made sure to talk to the police officer overseeing the whole operation before he left for his appearance on opposition channel RainTV. Ilya Ponomarev, another Just Russia Duma deputy who has been a key figure in the movement, had announced from the stage that he would meet with anyone who wanted to talk to him at the fountain in the center of the square, a sort-of impromptu town hall. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who’s become the opposition’s most natural leader, and leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov had announced that they weren’t leaving the square, period — an unlikely prospect given the temperature. “He told me, fine, let them stay and shout for a few hours,” Gudkov said, of the police supervisor.

It didn’t quite go down like that. Gudkov and his son Dmitry, also a Duma deputy from the same party, left Pushkin Square with a clear conscience. Ponomarev climbed up on the granite fountain in the center of the square, where Navalny, Udaltsov and a few others joined them. A small crowd of supporters — almost all male — stuck around, too. When the police started shouting at them to clear out, Navalny’s bodyguard commanded the crowd to form a tightly packed chain around him, and the young men at the bottom of that snow-filled empty fountain joined up. Riot police started to sweep the square and drag people into armored vans: holding pens on wheels. Then the police descended into the fountain, snatching links out of the human chain, one by one, and dragging them to the side of the fountain, and hurling them, like sacks of potatoes, over the red granite border. “Hey! Toss the next one!” one of the cops waiting up there giggled in delight.

They got Udaltsov, Navalny, opposition figure Ilya Yashin, a Western journalist, and Ponomarev, who stood shouting into a loudspeaker: “Police! Stop breaking the law! This is a peaceful meeting!” (They quickly released him.) All in all, they got 250 people, including Alena Popova, a glamorous young media consultant and e-government evangelist who has linked up to Ponomarev and the opposition movement. She wasn’t so lucky, though: the police broke her arm.

Hearing about this, the Gudkovs raced back to Pushkin Square from the television studio. By the time they arrived, the riot police and the OMON special police had formed a chain and started to push everyone out of the square. There was plenty of room and not many people, but they managed to get into such a formation — a reverse cowherd — that people, many of them journalists with press badges in full view, started falling and getting trampled underfoot.

Gudkov tried to stop them in their tracks. “I’m a deputy of the Federal Duma!” he said. “I’m a Duma deputy!”

The police kept pushing.

“What the fuck?” Gudkov exclaimed, as the police nearly bowled him over. “Do you hear me? I’m a Duma deputy!”

Dmitry wasn’t having any more luck, even when he flashed his Duma ID.

“Motherfuckers,” he grunted as the police shoved him forward. “This is how you elect a fucking president?”

“Where is Gennady Yurievich?” the elder Gudkov growled when the pushing abated for a minute, demanding to see the police supervisor who had upended the contract. “Who is the commanding officer here? Who?”

The police were mute.

When Dmitry Gudkov tried to get through the line to find this commanding officer, he was immediately detained, but released when the officers waiting for him in the police van saw who he was.

Why did the police show such disregard for a government official, ostensibly a reprentative of the people, even when he showed them proof of his identity — and stature?

“Because we haven’t abided by the law here in ages,” Dmitry Gudkov told me afterwards, angrily adjusting his shearling. “I was just in Astrakhan, monitoring the vote. They wouldn’t let me into the polling stations. I was climbing over fences to get in, even though, as a Duma deputy, I have the right to walk into any government office without impediment.”

It was all a strange echo of the night of Dec. 5, when thousands of people came out to Chistye Prudy in central Moscow to protest the fraudulent parliamentary vote the day before. That night’s protest was peaceful and the cops stood respectfully by until a small faction tried to march down to Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB. That’s when the batons rained down and bodies were dragged kicking to the arrest vans, and the police made the colossal mistake of arresting Navalny, instantly turning a blogger into a leader of the movement. And instead of turning people away, the violence seemed to galvanize people: Five days later, a crowd of 50,000 showed up to Bolotnaya Square to demand free elections and the respect of their government.

On the eve of the presidential election, I wrote that, when faced with two options in a tense political atmosphere, Putin tends to pick the absolute worst option. The days since — from his paranoiacally armored, tear-filled victory speech when only a third of the votes were counted, to Monday’s crackdown– seem to continue to bear that theory out. Instead of letting the stragglers shout in Pushkin Square until they could no longer stand in ankle-deep snow, to let the protest fizzle away into the very insignificance that Putin claims they represent, the command come down to arrest the sons of bitches — and mint some new martyrs. (One lesson they did seem to learn from Dec. 5, when they jailed Navalny for 15 days: This time, they released him after charging him with a petty offense — organizing a protest, maximum fine $70.)

“It’s not clear what to do with the protests,” Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told me a couple days before the election. “On one hand, they’re probably thinking, ‘enough leniency, let’s crack down.’ But if they do crack down, then the press is filled with images of contorted faces and police batons, and it’s a very unpleasant picture of Putin’s first day after the election.”

And Putin, it should be noted, cares about his image in the West. At an investor conference this fall, he courted Western capital and went on at length about what a European country Russia was. One of the last things he did before the election was to invite the editors of some of the most important European newspapers to his dacha for an interview, partly to talk to them about how Russian foreign policy would continue to be friendly — and business friendly — toward the West during a third Putin term. In May, three weeks after his inauguration, Putin will go to Chicago for the G-8 summit. How good can an alpha dog feel if his victory — which he clearly saw as an emotional, historical milestone — is marred by some roughed-up hipsters?

Already, the chidings are pouring in. Prokhorov, who had just met with a very welcoming, encouraging Putin Monday morning, issued a statement condemning the violence. “I’m outraged by the use of force against people who had gathered to express their civic position,” he said. “I am positive that the use of force and arrest of opposition politicians could have been avoided.” “Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square,” tweeted Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia and close advisor to President Barack Obama, with whom Putin is to have a tête-a-tête in Chicago.

By 11 p.m., four hours after the protest on Pushkin Square had started, there were few people left. Dmitry Gudkov was trying to find out the whereabouts of Ponomarev, Navalny, and the others who had been arrested. A shocked Gennady Gudkov stood talking to a scrum of journalists — who had themselves been roughed up — when a cop with a megaphone walked by.

“Go to the metro,” the cop droned. “Stop your illegal actions.”

Gudkov did a double take.

“What illegal actions?” he said. “I’m standing in the square, talking to people. I’m not even shouting political slogans!”

I asked him how tonight’s crackdown looked for Putin, so jubilant and generous in his victory.

“Party’s over,” Gudkov sighed. “Party’s ruined.”

‘This Is How You Elect a F*cking President?’ [FP]

Cleaning Up in Moscow

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

MOSCOW – If you want to talk about trigger moments, you could do worse than the night of December 4. As the polls closed in Russia’s parliamentary elections that Sunday, the Kremlin’s polling firm FOM posted an exit poll on its website that gave United Russia, the ruling party created to support Vladimir Putin, 27.5 percent. It seemed a reasonable result: Moscow is a rich, highly educated city where United Russia, despite being backed by the full resources of the state, is virulently unpopular. By Monday morning, the exit poll had disappeared off the FOM website, replaced with an official result that bore no resemblance to the election day surveys: 46.6 percent. Moscow exploded in a rage that evening and many thousands of people came out to protest, something unheard of in the city for the dozen years of Putin’s rule.

A line had clearly been crossed. After this, tens of thousands of Muscovites — Muscovites who had up until then been indifferent to politics — started coming out into the streets in the largest political protests Russia had seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their demands — new parliamentary elections — were impossible, but the one thing you heard over and over at those first protests was a sense of offense: we are not idiots. “Politicians everywhere lie,” one young man in a beautiful shearling coat told me at the December 10 protest on Bolotnaya Square. “But in other countries, they do it with more finesse. It’s not as crass as here.”

Exactly three months and three mass opposition protests later, that lesson seems to have been utterly lost on the Kremlin — or, worse, rudely ignored. Going into the March 4 presidential election set to restore Putin to the office he temporarily swapped out of four years ago, the going theory among the Moscow political chattering classes was that Moscow itself would have a relatively clean election, that the Kremlin would decide not to pour fuel on the fire by avoiding really flagrant election fraud of the sort we saw in December — the ballot stuffing, the so-called carousels of voters herded on buses to vote again and again and again. After all, 82,000 of the 370,000 new election monitors who volunteered to make sure these elections were more honest than the last were in Moscow.

And yet, all day Sunday, Moscow was flooded with news of violations in the city. In part, they were the result of more eyes. In many cases, the violations were so blatant that no pair of eyes could miss them. Instead of limiting themselves to the quiet tricks they’ve used before — stuffing ballot boxes before the voting begins, pressuring people at work to vote for Putin, fudging the numbers on the election protocols after the election monitors have gone home — whoever was in charge of the operation almost seemed to have made a conscious decision to go flagrant. Fleets of buses — workhorses of the carousels — clogged Moscow’s center. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused in, their cities of origin plastered on the windshields, to vote. (The busing got so bad that, at mid-day, the head of the Moscow Election Committee had to issue a clarification: they were just giving people rides to the polling stations, he said.)

Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, reported a large mass of voters with absentee certificates — which allow you to vote outside your precinct — from faraway Tambov showing up at her precinct in suburban Moscow, where she worked as an observer. These absentee certificates were this election’s great innovation, giving the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once. It seemed to be a massive plan: the Central Election Commission ran out of the certificates well before the elections started. There were 2.6 million of them.

“Everyone expected a cleaner election in Moscow,” says Alexey Navalny, who made his name as an anti-corruption fighter and is the opposition’s most natural, if reluctant, leader. We sat in the information center organized by his latest civil society project, RosVybory, one of the many new election monitoring initiatives that sprouted up in this winter’s unrest. “But these were naïve expectations, because this would have led to a second round.”

Without a strong showing for Putin in Moscow, Navalny reckoned, the math just wouldn’t have added up and Putin would not have gotten over the 50 percent threshold required to win the presidential contest outright, without a second-round runoff, despite the weakness of his would-be opponents, perennials of the stage-managed opposition like Communist Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and oligarch newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov. Added Navalny, “If you want results, and they want results, you need to act firmly, without hesitation. There’s a sound file making the rounds on the Internet now of an electoral meeting with the governor of the Moscow region. He says absolutely clearly: our task is to get over 50 percent, do whatever you want. No one is going to punish the governor for falsifying the vote, but he will be punished for not delivering results.” (Indeed, several governors in whose regions United Russia did poorly in December’s elections were unceremoniously replaced by the Kremlin.)

And why did Putin not want a second round? “A second round is not cool,” Navalny argued when we talked. “If you win in the second round, then you’re just a politician who competes with Zyuganov. You’re not a cool guy…. In the political construct he’s created, you cannot show weakness. Which is why they haven’t carried out the demands of the protesters that would be easy to carry out – like firing the Central Election Commission chair, punishing even the small fry falsifiers. They clearly think that if you give the protesters a finger, they’ll take your arm. And a national leader doesn’t behave like this.”

In the meantime, Moscow filled with more special troops than I or most other people have ever seen. Special forces, interior ministry troops, military convoys at the entrances to Red Square, signal jammers, water cannons, soldiers walking around with ham radios strapped to their backs. Ostensibly, the massive presence was to secure the massive victory rally planned outside the Kremlin walls. It looked more like war, which given today’s tactics, the Kremlin is likely to see in tomorrow’s opposition protest on Pushkin Square: there’s just less and less patience for peaceful protest in an atmosphere turning increasingly toxic.

“The last time I saw water cannons in Moscow was in 1990, when there were big protests in the city,” recalls Yury Sparykin, the editor-in-chief of the media company Rambler-Afisha, and one of the organizers of the winter’s opposition protests. “That means it’s a good omen: only one year left.”

But what a year it could be.

When Putin finally took the stage at 10 p.m. he brought Dmitry Medvedev, who had served as his placeholder president for the last four years, with him. As Medvedev spoke of a clean victory, which no one could take from them, Putin stifled emotion. Only a third of the ballots had been processed, but his projected results steadily climbed past the 60 percent mark. A tear ran down his cheek. “We won in an open and honest battle,” he said, looking over a massive crowd that dwarfed any the opposition had ever summoned.

Back at the RosVybory headquarters in a bohemian café up the street from the Kremlin, Navalny mounted a small wooden stage with chessmaster-turned-opposition figure Garry Kasparov. “We have no legitimate government,” Navalny said. “We have no legitimate president. He who has declared himself president tonight is a usurper.” And then he called on the quiet, deflated crowd to continue their struggle.

Cleaning Up in Moscow [FP]

Prokhorov’s Smile, Putin’s Tears

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

The polling stations had closed in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave sitting atop Poland. The Russian Far East was already tabulating its results in the day’s Presidential election. There were not going to be any surprises: Vladimir Putin, who swapped out of the Presidency for four years after serving eight, was expected to coast into office on a comfortable landslide. Even before anything was counted, tens of thousands of Putin supporters—real or alleged—were descending to the Manezh Square, at the foot of the Kremlin walls, for a massive, and heavily armored, victory rally. And yet, things felt vague and tense at the election-day headquarters of oligarch and newly minted presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, at a club that was once known as “Progressive Daddy.”

Prokhorov, whom I profiled in The New Yorker, had announced his candidacy less than three months before the presidential elections. He had a lot going against him, and time was the least of it: he was perceived by many in his target electorate to be a Kremlin plant designed to appease them. And yet, people inside his campaign worried about what would happen to him once the election, which he would certainly lose, was over. Would Prokhorov be allowed to build a political party, as he said he wanted to, or—now that his campaign had become more vehement in its criticism of Putin and his system—would his business interests come under attack, or worse?

As waiters ferried wine and grilled vegetables and salmon—Prokhorov is known for his fondness for good, healthy food—Anton Krasovsky, a television journalist who became Prokhorov’s campaign chair, sat on a modern gray couch. Wearing a black suit and a skinny black tie, huffing on thin menthols, he was a picture straight out of “Mad Men.” Krasovsky was frustrated, and showered hard-to-translate curses on everything around him, especially the gathering pro-Putin rally. “I drove past those fucking bitches,” he said. “Fucking fuckwits.”

When the first results started to trickle in—with Putin vaulting easily over the sixty per cent mark—Krasosvky got up to address the a group of journalists. “According to our own exit polls we have twenty-five per cent in Moscow, twenty per cent in St. Petersburg,” he said, gallantly perched on a stool on the stage. “We’re second place in cities with populations of over a million, and according to VTsIOM”—a pollster linked to the Kremlin—”we are in third place nationally.”

“These are incredible results,” Alexander Lyubimov, a famous Soviet-era journalist, who is Prokhorov’s friend and an adviser to his campaign, told me. We were waiting for Prokhorov’s arrival, and for Putin to take the stage at Manezh. “This is an incredible result. We started from scratch three months ago. We didn’t have the advantages of the others,” he said, alluding to Putin’s use of his office, and state television, as an unofficial agitprop machine. Lyubimov said that Prokhorov’s bounce in the polls showed that he was “the only candidate offering a future, a clear and understandable vision of how to move forward.” He shrugged at the suggestion that voters turned to Prokhorov at least in part because many educated, affluent, and urban Russians, whose resentment of Putin has reached a fever pitch, had few other choices; over the past decade, Putin has very carefully cleared the political field of any real opponents. “I don’t know about that,” Lyubimov said. A third-place finish, he said, was important because it would open the door for Prokhorov to build a political party with the same kind of liberal platform on which he ran. “How can you do something like that if you’re half-legitimate?” Lyubimov said. “Tonight finally put an end to all those questions. Tonight has made him a real, legitimate politician.”

Behind him, on a giant plasma screen, Putin strode onto a floodlit stage with the current President, Dmitry Medvedev, by his side. The camera panned across the crowd, an unbelievable sea of flags and people—many shipped in by state enterprises from across the country—fanning across the square and stretching all the way up Tverskaya, the city’s main drag.

“Today is a very good day,” Medvedev said. His face strained between happiness and extreme discomfort. “Thank you for supporting our candidate, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” he said of the man who had plucked a second term—one Medvedev very much wanted—from his plate. “Our candidate is in a comfortable lead, and I have no doubt that he will win. And we need this victory. Our country needs this victory, each one of us needs this victory, and we will not give this victory to anyone!”

Standing next to him in the kind of dark, hooded down jacket his more terrifying supporters usually sport, the candidate seemed out of sorts. His face, which seems to have recently undergone a tightening and a refilling, quaked. He touched his fist to a quivering lip. The camera caught a suspicious glistening on his cheek: a tear? “They were real,” Putin clarified later. “From the wind.” Judge for yourself:

When Putin finally spoke, he was defiant: “We won!” he thundered. “We’ve really showed that no one can impose anything on us! No one and nothing!” It was a swipe at the winter’s protests demanding fair elections, a movement Putin chose to portray as a fifth column and a Western ploy to destroy Russia, rather than engage in any kind of political discourse with those of his citizens who were not satisfied with the status quo.

The press at Prokhorov’s headquarters had barely pulled their eyes from the amazing sight on the screen—Putin hunts and Putin dives, but Putin does not cry—when Prokhorov himself loped into the room. This candidate had just done a circuit on a couple of state television channels and was now ready to talk to the press. He was in his standard good spirits and he opened the floor to questions. No speech, no preamble.

“There’s a difference between fair and unfair elections, and legitimate and illegitimate elections,” he said, when asked if, in light of extensive reports of fraud, he was prepared to recognize these elections as legitimate. “From the very beginning, they were not fair, but I knew that they would be that way when I started.” Prokhorov was a system player; he was not prepared to dismiss today’s vote as illegitmate.

The scene at Manezh—the flags, the heavy troop presence, the crying candidate—”surprised me a little,” Prokhorov said. “It gives the impression of a civil war. We all live in the same country and we need to learn to reach compromises with each other. I think it’s a little much.”

He would not accept a position in the government, he said, were he offered one. His goal, Prokhorov said, was to build a party, which his result—about ten or eleven per cent, as it then stood—gave him the go-ahead to do. He spoke of his hope that Putin would see the light and pursue a true modernizing agenda. “We desperately lack competition,” Prokhorov said. “And if we don’t get some soon, we have some hard times ahead.”

But it’s not like Prokhorov to leave things on such a sour note, even if the mood around him plummeted quickly into despair. “We’ll be seeing a lot of each other,” he said, wrapping up the press conference, and flashing a sly and sporty half-smile. “Everything’s just getting started.”

Prokhorov’s Smile, Putin’s Tears [TNY]

A Fraud Ring and the “Russian Mindset”

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

A couple of days ago, thirty-six Soviet immigrants were arrested in New York for plotting to bilk health-insurance companies out of a quarter of a billion dollars. The plot, according to a story in the Times, involved ten doctors, nine clinics, and a hundred and five corporations: “The ring sought reimbursement for so many excessive and unnecessary medical treatments that it had to set up three separate billing processing companies just to handle the paperwork.” What’s remarkable here is just how unremarkable the story is, coming, as it does, out of Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach is famous not only for its gauche cabarets and Russian delicacies and grumbling, highly-inflected Russian of the provinces, but for its improbable concentration of insurance fraud. As the Times puts it, “Brighton Beach has one of the highest rates of health care fraud in the nation, according to federal statistics. In fact, an analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that regulates those two programs, shows that more health care providers in the Brighton Beach ZIP code are currently barred from the programs for malfeasance than in almost any other ZIP code in the United States.”

The article then goes into an intricate dance, dipping into a “Russian mind-set” that might draw Soviet immigrants to fraud—that’s from an unnamed law-enforcement official—and the to-be-sure-not-all-Soviet-immigrants-involved-in-health-care-are-criminals reminder:

Still, some experts in law enforcement and academia believe that the cumbersome Soviet system, with its thicket of strictures that governed almost every aspect of life, effectively helped to groom a generation of post-Soviet criminals in the United States.

“Obviously, particularly in Soviet times, but even nowadays, Russia still has a large amount of red tape and bureaucratic systems that are parasitic and hostile, almost designed to make you pay bribes,” said Prof. Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime at New York University. “So from cradle to grave, they have been used to that.”

It’s not so much that “systems” in Russia are designed to make you pay bribes, it’s that they’re often designed on the back of an envelope—that is, not designed or thought-through at all. The effect—sometimes intended, usually not—is to make de facto criminals out of basically everybody. In contemporary Russia, you’ll meet many pristinely-educated, well-traveled, white-collar business people who will tell you, absolutely sincerely, that they’d prefer to have “white”—that is, clean—businesses, but that the laws are so contradictory that they would go bust abiding by them all. These people are not guys in tracksuits named Fat Misha. They wear nice suits and speak foreign languages and have great table manners. Their wives like diamond stud earrings and subtle lip gloss. They’re contractors and distributors and partners with big Western firms. And, for the most part, they’re not crooks by intent but because there are simply very few ways to make money legally.

Many, if not most, of the guys rounded up in this week’s operation, I assume, came to the U.S. before making money was even a legal option for them. They came from the Soviet Union, where commerce was illegal. Back there, back then, they could have been black marketeers and speculators. Or they could have been drones working boring Soviet jobs, making salaries that could buy them nothing because the economy was too inefficient—and state spending priorities were too rocket-oriented—to give them anything to buy. So everything, from clothes to canned goods to shampoo, had to be gotten by hook, crook, personal connection, or by buying them off a black marketeer. So it was not that “you’re looked upon as a patsy” if you were not “scamming the government,” as that unnamed officer told the Times, it’s that you’d die of hunger if you expected to get your food just by walking into a store with some money. (Plus, there was probably a line out the door and down the block.)

“These people deserve all the opprobrium in the world, but context is important. These are traumatized people, taking actions for which they remain fully responsible, but not because they’re evil—because you, too, might quite possibly act that way if you’d spent a lifetime living in the nightmare place where they lived,” Boris Fishman, a former fact-checker at The New Yorker who’s finishing a novel about a failed journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims, told me. (Boris is also a fellow Soviet immigrant.) “Even in these cynical souls it goes back to their inability to imagine a system where you get enough by acting fairly.”

The other thing about the “Russian mind-set” is that it goes back to pre-Soviet times, too. There’s a Russian saying, born of a history full of hard rulers and stupid laws spinning in distant corners of a very big and hard-to-regulate space: “The severity of the law is mitigated by its lack of enforcement.” So whereas someone of the “American mind-set” expects to be caught for breaking the law, someone of the “Russian mind-set” doesn’t. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it gets you close to the cultural context.

I was seven when my family came over from the Soviet Union. My parents largely avoided—and sneered at—the immigrant milieus like those of Brighton Beach. They were educated Muscovites; they did not party at Russian restaurants. They took us, their children, to the opera and the ballet. But being poor immigrants, and ballet tickets being ballet tickets, we often found ourselves sitting in the nosebleed sections only to scamper down to the parterre when the lights went out. (These shows were full of other Soviet immigrants, and so you’d find yourself clawing for velvet seats in the dark with someone just like you.) If you can do it and no one will catch you—hey, it’s dark!—why not? Though I should say that the greatest obstacle to moving down to the more expensive seats was the vehement resistance of my annoyingly law-abiding little sister—also a Soviet immigrant.

A Fraud Ring and the “Russian Mindset” [TNY]

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election?

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

MOSCOW – About a year ago, when I kicked off this column, nothing seemed more boring or futile than writing about the Russian presidential election. There was only one question you needed to answer to unlock the whole thing: Would Putin return from the prime minister’s office to run for a third presidential term or not? (Which is why we called the column “Kremlinology 2012.”) Once Putin decided who was running — himself or his protégé-turned-President Dmitry Medvedev — then we would know who was going to sit in the Kremlin, at least until 2018. So it all seemed to come down to Putin, who was often spoken of as the country’s only real voter.

In the year since, so much has happened — the grand swap between Putin and Medvedev announced in September, the suspect parliamentary elections in December, the mass street protests ever since — and some things have even changed. Yet, in essence, not much is really different: Going into the March 4 presidential election, everything is still up in the air and only one man — the same man — can decide how to bring it all down again. But even though we now know the answer to who is running and who will win, there are even more unknowns still to reckon with.

Yes, Putin will win, and he will win with a comfortable margin, but it is wholly unclear how accurately that will represent the popular will. In the hall of mirrors that has been the last month of opposition protests and loyalist counter-protests — not to mention car rallies and counter car rallies — it’s become hard to gauge where Russian public opinion truly lies. According the latest polling done by the independent Levada Center, 66 percent of those planning to vote say they will vote for Putin. Not bad for a leader facing a wave of street protests.

But if you look more closely at the numbers, Levada sociologist Denis Volkov says, they show something else. Over the summer, when it was unclear which of the two top leaders would actually be running, Putin had 23 percent and Medvedev had 18 percent. More than 40 percent of Russians polled said they wanted the two to run against each other. Then, when that option was taken away on Sept. 24, Putin’s number shot up. “People are rooting for the winner,” Volkov told me.

On Sunday, many people will vote for Putin not only because they think he’s the predestined winner but also because there is no one else to vote for. The Kremlin’s two-pronged strategy of first slashing and burning the political playing field and then bemoaning the lack of real competitors — it’s a shame, Putin once said, that his fellow democratic leader Gandhi is dead — has worked quite well. As it stands now, Putin faces Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist clown who has been the Kremlin-sponsored spoiler for over two decades; old Putin friend and Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov (you can see just how bad a candidate he is from this campaign ad); and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, about whose independence there are serious doubts. Putin’s most serious rival, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, resembles nothing so much as a smooth woodcarving. In my utterly unscientific surveys of people at Putin rallies in Moscow and traveling around Siberia last week, support for Putin split roughly in half between the “we-love-Putin” camp and the “got-any-better-ideas?” camp. The liberal-leaning opposition, loud and present and plentiful in the capital, is simply far less energized out there in the great Russian hinterland, where just over half the votes are.

Regardless, on Monday morning, Russia will wake up to its old-new president Putin, and that evening Muscovites will take to the streets in protests, both for and against. The Moscow mayor’s office has made a serious concession and allowed the opposition to gather at Pushkinskaya Square, in the heart of Moscow. But some in the opposition are talking of marching downhill to the Kremlin and forming a white circle around the old red walls. Will the authorities crack down? How many more times will city leaders grant permits to the organizers after March 5? How much stomach will Putin have for more protests once the campaign is over and won and he has to go back to running the country?

Speaking of which, how will Putin interpret the mandate he receives this weekend? Will we see a shift toward a more pluralistic Putin, a Putin capable of coalitions and concessions, or will we see a retrenchment, a caricature of the old Putin, a blustery, salty KGB-type who rules by fell swoops and diktats, a ruler to whom the people must bow? Will Medvedev, promised the post of prime minister, be allowed to continue to play the (sort of) liberal good cop? Will the Kremlin’s political concessions in the face of these protests — the return of gubernatorial elections and easier party registration procedures — have legs, or even teeth? Or will Putin continue tightening the screws by cracking down on independent media and opposition activists?

And what of those long overdue economic reforms? Putin’s campaign promises to raise pensions and fly Russian soccer fans to the European Championships for free could cost something like $161 billion. It’s a price tag that pretty much requires oil in the $150 a barrel range in order for the Kremlin to keep its word. That or Putin would have to raise taxes, or the retirement age — anathema to his populist policies and to his core electorate, which depends on such fiscally contradictory largesse.

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.”

For now, it seems Putin can’t quite make up his mind. On Thursday night, he met with the editors in chief of major European newspapers. He was calm and confident while monosyllabically turning down the opposition’s demands of new parliamentary elections. But just days before that, at a rally of supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, he screamed into the microphone of blood and sweat and meddling foreigners. It was a strange and angry speech, bizarrely out of sync with the wearily festive mood of the people who had come out to hear him (some willingly, some not). Moreover, those who had come had come in peace. Everyone I asked at the pro-Putin rally — without exception — said they didn’t mind the opposition protests. “Everyone has the right to their own opinion,” the refrain went. And then Putin talked to them of blood and dying to save the Motherland. From whom? “It’s a strange, sudden turn, not really motivated by anything,” argues Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s not his usual tone. His personal campaign is a lot more subtle. It’s a little savage, and I think it speaks to a certain unevenness, a nervousness.”

Increasingly, however, Putin’s rhetoric seems to point to something a little worse than a case of nerves. On Tuesday, at a meeting of his National People’s Front, Putin spoke of the opposition, saying bluntly that they would have to “submit” to the choice of the majority and avoid “imposing” their views on the majority. This kind of zero-sum language would seem to preclude dialogue. Putin followed by bizarrely speculating that his increasingly desperate opposition will end up searching for a “sacrificial offering” from its own ranks. “They’ll whack [him] themselves, excuse me, and then blame the government,” he said. This kind of talk doesn’t leave much room for hope; if anything, Putin seems to be encouraging the radicalization of the still amorphous opposition against him. Already, anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who helped launch the protests, has been calling for an “escalation,” and some of his activists were arrested on Wednesday for trying to hand out tents: Navalny wants to see a repeat of the great campout in Kiev after Ukraine’s rigged 2004 presidential election — the one that led to the Orange Revolution, as well as to Putin’s obsession with “color revolutions” being plotted all around him.

The Putin I’ve come to know in writing this column for the past year is a leader who, when presented with two options, tends to pick the easier, if often far stupider, of the two, especially in a tense political atmosphere. All spring and summer, the political scene in Moscow stagnated and soured as the city waited for Putin to make up his mind: Would he stay or go? When he finally revealed his decision in September, it was a stunning one, simply because it came out seeming so shortsighted and reckless and blunt.

“It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted,” Putin’s chronicler, the journalist Andrei Kolesnikov told me that day as we both stood slack-jawed in the stands following Putin’s announcement. “We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it’s so obvious.” He was in disbelief, despite the obviousness, because he, like many others, had hoped that Putin was capable of a better, wiser decision. When the protests exploded in December, Sasha, half of the duo behind KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter political satire, ruefully pointed out to me that if Putin had let Medvedev stay another term, “none of this would have happened.” And I think he’s absolutely right.

Would it be foolish to hope that, come March 5, Putin will see his mandate with the nuance the situation requires? To hope Putin has learned that political compromise and political strength can coexist? To hope that, for once, Putin takes the more difficult but ultimately more productive route of reform? Or would it be more prudent to see what’s hiding in plain sight? Again. Says Pavlovsky: “I just hope he doesn’t send us to war with Tajikistan.”

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election? [FP]