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]