Hello, WTO!

With a stroke of a pen on Friday evening Russia joins the World Trade Organisation, something that’s been a long time coming.

Experts agree the end of the eighteen year courtship with the WTO will not bring immediate results for Russian economy.  Immediately it will seriously hit a number of uncompetitive industries, such as agriculture and automobiles, as well as light industry and machine manufacturing.

“A lot still needs to be done in terms of understanding what WTO membership will bring to Russia,” said Viktor Vekselber, Russia’s metals tycoon. “We must open our eyes to what we pay for a ticket to this trade club,” Vekselber added.

The longer term economic impact, will is likely to prove positive, as the reduction of trade barriers should spur Russian companies to become more competitive.

“The main question is balance – and I am sure positive effects will outweigh the negative ones,” Vekselber said.

According to Russia’s Ministry for Economic Development, consumer prices are expected to go down 10%, with the accession adding another 4.3% to a GDP growth. The World Bank also calculates that spending will go up 7%.

Russia’s accession to the global trade club is likely to boost its foreign trade as well. The United States expects its exports to Russia to double over the next five years.

Karel de Gucht, EU Trade Commissioner, believes Russia’s WTO membership will spur trade with European companies as well, “because the accession to WTO will give them the assurance that they were in a legal environment that was more transparent than it was before.”

“Whether it will mean doubling in 5 or 10 years – we’ll see,” Gucht concluded.

More immediately the big winner is likely to be the Russian consumer, who’ll get better quality goods at a more competitive price, experts agree.

“Russian consumer cannot indefinitely tolerate inefficiency, excessive costs, and inability of managers,” said Anatoly Chubais, Rusnano CEO.

Once the WTO accession protocol is signed in Geneva, the Russian Parliament then has 8 months to ratify it.

And it’s more than just paperwork, as the leading industrial lobbyist Alexander Shokhin explains.

“Before ratification, both the government and business will have the task of adapting current state support for vulnerable industries. These include the agriculture and automotive sectors of the economy. State support schemes will be changed into new mechanisms allowed by the WTO’s rules.”

Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third richest man, to challenge Putin

Russia‘s third richest man has said that he would seek to challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency, prompting speculation that the surprise move could be part of a Kremlin attempt to channel growing middle class opposition to Putin’s regime.

“I have made a decision, probably the most serious decision of my life,” the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov told journalists during a hastily called press conference on Monday. “I am going to run in the presidential election.” Prokhorov said he would seek to appeal to the disenchanted middle class with his candidacy and made sure to avoid direct criticism of Putin, who has drawn the ire of a growing protest movement hoping to challenge his authoritarian rule.

But the announcement appeared to some analysts to be a Kremlin attempt to redirect protesters’ ire from the streets, organised by the unauthorised opposition, into a liberal project controlled by the corridors of power. Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told Gazeta.ru that Prokhorov – who has a history of involvement in Kremlin-inspired politics – was “a pure fake and bluff”. Prokhorov presented his statement as a challenge to the Putin era. “Society is waking up, whether you want it or not,” he said. “If the powers, in the widest sense of the word, don’t carry out a dialogue [with the protesters], then those powers will soon have to go.”

However, his presidential bid presents a total about-face regarding Putin’s handling of the government. Just last week, as the first signs of the protest movement began to emerge, he took to his blog to say: “Whether you like it or not, Putin is so far the only one who can somehow manage this ineffective government machine.”

Prokhorov has survived a series of scandals to build a fortune of an estimated £11.5bn. He was forced to sell his stake in the metals giant Norilsk Nickel on the eve of the financial crisis in 2008, after becoming embroiled in a prostitution scandal in France. He now owns part of a major gold producer and the New Jersey Nets basketball team in the US.

The 6ft 8in billionaire has tried his hand at politics before. He spent a brief four months as head of the pro-business Right Cause party, until he was kicked out in September – something he blamed on the Kremlin’s chief strategist and ideologist Vladislav Surkov. The project was a failed attempt to garner liberal support ahead of the parliamentary elections earlier this month, and was apparently derailed by the Kremlin once it got too popular.

When asked what was missing from Russia’s political scene in a rare interview last week, Surkov answered: “A mass liberal party.” Prokhorov’s announcement led the evening news reports, tightly controlled by Surkov, indicating it was given official sanction.

Prokhorov insisted he had not discussed his candidacy with Putin, Surkov or President Dmitry Medvedev. The oligarch must gather 2m signatures of support before the elections commission approves his candidacy.

Russia’s protest movement, which saw 50,000 people denouncing election fraud and Putin’s rule on Saturday, has forced the Kremlin to acknowledge the void in liberal representation in government. The government has repeatedly refused to register liberal parties and has allowed no serious opponents to Putin to emerge.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said that the government was not involved in Prokhorov’s decision. “It has nothing to do with us. We have nothing to do with him.” He added Putin had been informed of Prokhorov’s announcement and had “no reaction”.

Prokhorov revealed few details on Monday, declining to outline his political platform or commit to whether he would make an appearance at Moscow’s next big protest, planned for 24 December. “I’d like to keep some mystery,” he said.

Prokhorov said he was holding talks with Alexei Kudrin, who was removed as finance minister in September after criticising Medvedev one day after the president said he would step aside in favour of Putin.

In an interview published on Monday, Kudrin called for the creation of a new liberal party following the protests. “The process of the consolidation of liberal and democratic forces will now go forward. I am absolutely certain of this, and I myself am ready to support this,” the long-time Putin ally told the Vedomosti newspaper.

When Prokhorov was at its head, Right Cause did manage to gain some support among the urban, middle class elite despite the Kremlin’s involvement. Yet it was unclear whether the same would be true after discontent has spilled onto the streets.

Meanwhile, Russia’s opposition continued to plan its next step, applying for permission to hold a 50,000-strong rally on 24 December just outside the Kremlin’s walls. One of the movements leaders, anti-corruption fighter Alexei Navalny, indicated in an interview from prison, where he is serving a 15-day sentence for disobeying police orders during Russia’s first protest, that he did not rule out running for the presidency.

“I think answering that question in this place and in the context of everything that is happening is stupid,” he told the New Times, an opposition magazine. “This shouldn’t be discussed here.”

Russian ex-finance minister says may establish new political party

It is an ideal time for establishing a new Russian right-wing party as the country’s “political landscape” is changing, former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said in an interview with Vedomosti business daily published on Monday.

New Russian party to be established

In the first interview after his scandalous dismissal, Kudrin, who fell out with the Kremlin and was sacked as finance minister in late September, said he was ready to participate in the establishment of a new right-wing party as liberal views in Russia historically had not found wide support.

“The demand on the creation of such a [political] structure is so high that it will inevitably be established…I am ready to contribute to it,” Kudrin told Vedomosti.

The ex-minister, who had previously dismissed reports that he might become the Right Cause party’s leader, said that President Dmitry Medvedev had repeatedly asked him to head the party.

“I said no…as I realized that the Right Cause with its ‘unclear people’ and significant control from the Kremlin will be absolutely powerless,” Kudrin said.

Some Russian media reported earlier that the Right Cause party, once headed by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, was allegedly neutered by pro-Kremlin figures concerned about Prokhorov’s emergence as a political force.

United Russia loses grip

Kudrin, who confessed he had not voted for the United Russia party at the parliamentary elections on December 4, said that the souring support for the ruling party is a “rational result.”

“The United Russia party is losing support…These elections showed the unusual situation when people want to preserve and discuss the fairness of the elections. In this regard, people are not satisfied with the results, there are too many flaws,” Kudrin said.

Kudrin confirmed that the ruling party had not met the people’s expectations because there were not any significant changes in its key oaths, including easing conditions for business, tackling corruption and restoring the judiciary system.

“United Russia is an experienced and pragmatic party…I think it will return to reality after populist statements,” Kudrin said, referring to Russia’s “changing political landscape.”

No talks to occupy premier post

Kudrin, who was sacked soon after the United Russia’s congress on September 24 where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he would swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev after presidential elections, was rumored to possibly occupy the premier’s post.

“Nobody has discussed the premier post with me. The genuine reason of my leaving is that the previous incorrect decisions that were made would not be reviewed. I have no plans to fight with the consequences of the decisions that I was against,” Kudrin told Vedomosti, referring the Kremlin’s decision to increase defense costs, a move that Kudrin had sharply criticized.

The former minister also said that he had never been a close ally to Putin, but continued to respect him regardless “disagreements on several issues.”

Medvedev disapproves of rally’s slogans, but orders election probe

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an investigation into alleged vote rigging, but stressed the messages voiced at the opposition demonstration Saturday did not carry his support.

­“I disagree with both the slogans and statements made at the rally. Nevertheless, I have given instructions that all reports from voting stations be checked to ensure compliance with election laws,” Medvedev wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday.

Even so, Medvedev appeared to be satisfied with the way the rally went off on Saturday.

Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are Russian citizens’ constitutional rights. People have a right to speak their point of view, which they did yesterday. It is good, that everything passed within the law,” the President’s message reads.

Moscow police said 25,000 protesters gathered in central Moscow to protest the country’s parliamentary election results, following voting on December 4. The election brought 238 Duma seats out of 450 to United Russia – the party supporting Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In the previous vote, in 2007, United Russia won an overwhelming majority in the lower chamber of Parliament.

The announcement of this year’s elections brought on a stream of demonstrators claiming vote rigging. On Saturday, protests rolled through all of Russia, with Moscow seeing its biggest rally since 1993.

Russian election watchdog emails to US State Dept. go online

Russian news website Life News has published emails it claims show correspondences between the US State Dept. and the major Russian election-watchdog Golos, discussing financing to help discredit the results of Russia’s parliamentary vote.

­Life News says it has come into the possession of 60 megabytes of Golos’ private online correspondences. According to Life News, they are letters sent and received by Golos Executive Chief Lilya Shibanova and her deputy Grigory Melkonyants. Judging by the documents published on the site, the group which claimed to be independent was actually funded in order to defend the interests of US State Department.

In one of the letters Yulia Kostkina, a financial analyst for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sends Melkonyants a list of remarks and guidelines considering Golos’ activities. She also writes:

“The list of the lacking documents we are expecting from you:
Policy and procedures of applying currency rates to Golos accountance and finance reporting;
Procurement activities;
Procedures of property management considering the procedures, existing in USAID,”

with several more similar paragraphs in that letter.


Letter by Yulia Kostkina, a financial analyst for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to Golos Deputy Chief. Image from Lifenews.ru (click to enlarge)

USAID has a clear goal of supporting the US foreign policy and is not making secret of that, while Golos has been proclaiming its “independent monitoring of the election and defense of voters’ rights.”

­And judging by the letters in question, there seems to be a certain “price” Golos paid activists for any report on election violations. Here is a letter by activist Andrey Suvorov to Melkonyants:

I just wanted to discuss the conditions of our work once again.
Like we have defined it, it is piece-rated.
What will be the sum for one full appeal based on a violation report?
What will be the sum for the detected incorrect report about a violation?
Waiting for your answer.
If necessary, I will come up with my suggestions.
Best regards, Andrey.”

Shibanova explained the letters discussing rates for violations reports by the fact that Suvorov is a lawyer who really was “piece-paid” for checking such messages. She also told Life News, “this correspondence was attained illegally.”

“It was withdrawn from the mailbox of my deputy, Grigory Melkonyants; he often sent emails from his account by my orders. Cracking a mailbox is unlawful, and we will apply to the court,”
she said.

­Golos mission

Golos has pointed out violations it allegedly spotted during Sunday’s parliamentary election in Russia.

Earlier, a couple days before the vote, Shibanova was held by Russian customs officers at a Moscow airport until she handed over her laptop for inspection when she was returning from an EU-Russia Civil Society forum. Just a day before the incident, “Golos” had been fined around $1,000 by a Moscow court for publishing “election-related opinion polls and research” between Tuesday and Wednesday, as in Russia publication of such information is forbidden within five days of elections.

On a separate occasion, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner said Washington would provide greater support to non-governmental organizations in Russia for “greater transparency” during next year’s presidential election.

Despite America’s budget breakdown, millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been allocated for the purpose of “improving” Russian elections.

“We have, I know, spent more than $9 million to support free and transparent processes for Russia’s upcoming elections,” Toner said, before singling out Golos.”Our interest is to support these NGOs that support the process, not necessarily to support… any given political party,” he went on. “And Golos, by the way, is just one of many nongovernmental organizations in Russia that receive this kind of assistance.”

­The publication came as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested that anti-election activists in Russia acted after a prompt from the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who criticized the Duma elections an OSCE meeting on Tuesday.

“I watched our American colleagues’ first reaction. The first thing the Secretary of State did was to give an assessment of the elections, saying that they were unjust and unfair – even though she had no materials from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. She gave a tune-in for some activists in our country and she gave them a signal. They heard the signal and started to take action with the support of the US State Department.”

Putin also suggested tougher punishment for those who influence Russian politics on orders from abroad.

“We must protect our sovereignty and we should think about improving the laws around toughening penalties for those who execute the tasks of a foreign state to influence our internal political processes,” he said.

The Decembrist Uprising

The Power Vertical

Demonstrators take part in a protest rally against electoral fraud in Kaliningrad on December 7.

Throughout his first stint in the Kremlin, from 2000-08, Vladimir Putin was able to count on the rock-solid support of Russia’s emerging new middle class. And why not? He was largely credited with creating this class by ushering in a degree of stability after the chaos and deprivation of the 1990s.

Sure Russians were asked to give up a degree of political freedoms. They could no longer watch the satirical “Kukly” program on NTV — or any independent television programming for that matter. They could also no longer elect governors or hold public demonstrations. But they were free to make money, buy cool cars and gadgets, and go on fancy vacations — provided they steered clear of politics and criticizing the regime (see Khodorkovsky, Mikhail).

And the number of people who could afford to do these things increased markedly, fuelled by record oil prices that trickled down and fuelled prosperity that was more widespread than mist Russians had ever seen. What was the exclusive prerogative of the oligarchs and their hangers on in the 90s suddenly became available, not to all, but to many.

And for awhile, that was enough — but apparently not anymore.

In our podcast discussion earlier this week, my colleague Kirill Kobrin, the managing editor of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, made a lot of salient observations about the rapidly changing political landscape in the aftermath of Sunday’s disputed legislative elections (you can listen to the podcast here).

One of the most interesting points Kirill made was how much the socio-economic profile of those supporting and opposing the Putin regime has changed:

This, to put it mildly, is a sea change. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. When an authoritarian society becomes more prosperous it is a natural progression for the newly minted middle class, secure in their improved living standards, to eventually begin to yearn for — and eventually demand — greater political rights and freedoms.

We saw this in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, we saw it in Taiwan, we saw it in South Korea and elsewhere. And I think we are now, finally, beginning to see it in Russia. And in this sense, Putin has largely become a victim of his own success.

The central role social networking sites like Facebook are playing in the protests (see my colleague Tom Balmforth’s excellent report on that here) and the role pricey smart phones are playing in spreading viral videos about electoral violations and the street protests are witness to the bourgeois middle class nature of this Decembrist uprising.

It is also striking how out of touch Putin and the ruling elite have become with the society they helped create.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s allegedly Internet savvy president, belittled the videos documenting voter fraud that have been making the rounds since Sunday, saying that they proved nothing. The comment is laughable for anybody who has seen these videos. (Take a look at this one of a man voting multiple times, that went viral on election day, for example.)

A report  today in “Vedomosti” citing unidentified officials said the “protests in the capital greatly upset the Kremlin, the government, and [Moscow] city fathers.” The report quoted one official as saying: “They are trying to work out a policy… a

If Putin’s comments about the protests today are any indication, that strategy seems to be — wait for it — to blame Hillary Clinton. (I’m only half joking here.)

“I have seen  the first reaction  of our American  partners,” Putin said.  “The first thing the [U.S.] Secretary of  State [Hillary Clinton] did was give an assessment  that the election was neither free nor fair, even  before she received materials from OSCE/ODIHR observers. And she set a tone for some of our actors inside the country. She gave a signal and they heard it and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, have started to work actively.”

(For the record, in her comments on the Russian elections in Bonn on December 5, Clinton made numerous references to the OSCE report.)

So one part of the Kremlin strategy appears to be to play the foreigner card — blaming the tried-and-true scapegoats in the West.

Another appears to be to curtail the Internet. The FSB called on the Russian social networking site VKontakte to close the accounts of opposition figures. Remarkably VKontakte rebuffed them.

The Kremlin appears out of touch with the age that is emerging. They approached the elections as if this were 2004 and not 2011. And they are approaching the aftermath in the same way.

They may yet be able to shut down these protests and get back to business as usual. But the social forces driving this uprising are not going away anytime soon.

— Brian Whitmore



Vladimir Putin


2011 State Duma elections

Sociologists: Opposition more popular in cyberspace

Most Russians do not trust the non-parliamentary opposition which is now leading an active campaign against alleged falsifications of the State Duma elections, a sociological study has revealed.

­The survey was conducted by the independent analytical Levada Center a week before the parliamentary election. It showed that 58% of respondents have no trust in the leaders of the non-parliamentary opposition, more commonly known as the “non-system opposition.” The leader of the unregistered party Parnas, Boris Nemtsov, has the support of 3% of Russians. The rating of Parnas co-chairman Vladimir Ryzhkov stands at the same figure, while another co-chairman, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, has even fewer supporters – just 2%. Another 2% say they share the ideas of Garry Kasparov, leader of the social-democratic movement, the Unified Civil Front. Anti-corruption activist and blogger Aleksey Navalny and Ilia Yashin from the Solidarity movement for democratic values enjoy the support of around 1% of the population.

“All these politicians are well-known among active internet users, but they are much less known by the general public across Russia,” the deputy head of the Levada Center, Aleksey Grazhdankin, explained to Kommersant daily.
Given the insignificant influence of the “non-system” opposition, parliamentary opposition parties do not see them as real political allies. On Wednesday Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party which has not made it to the State Duma, called on Communists, Lib Dems and Fair Russia to give up their newly-won Duma seats – a move with would make a rerun of the elections inevitable.  The Liberal-Democratic party and Fair Russia responded immediately and unequivocally — they refused to do so. The Communists cautiously said that giving up seats would not be a problem but the consequences of such a move should be carefully considered.

Political analysts believe that this week’s protests will influence the course of the presidential campaign by linking the idea of “unfair elections” with the United Russia party. Consequently, this will affect the chances of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has been nominated for the presidency by the ruling party and who has already served two presidential terms.
Sociologists are of the opposite opinion, saying that the influence of the non-system opposition will soon fade with the protest mood and most likely die out by the time of the presidential poll.

U.S. says will continue support for peaceful protests, including in Russia

The United States will continue to support the rights of citizens for peaceful protests everywhere in the world, including Russia, a Department of State deputy spokesperson said.

“And again, I think as we’ve said before, we would obviously support the rights of anyone to peaceful protest – emphasis on peaceful – anywhere in the world. And – well, Russia’s no different,” Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner said.

According to official reports at least 300 people were detained when a crowd of some 5,000 rallied in central Moscow on Monday against alleged poll violations at Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

“We have seen that hundreds were arrested, and there is apparently a prominent blogger who remains in detention,” the deputy spokesperson said. “We’ve expressed our concerns about the treatment of all those being arrested who were exercising their rights to peaceful protest.”

Toner said that U.S. official, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have already delivered their remarks on the issue.

“Secretary Clinton was very clear about raising some of the concerns with the conduct of the recent elections,” the State Department deputy spokesperson said. “She said that Russian voters deserve, I think, a full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation.”

He also called on Russia to follow recommendations of international observers, including an OSCE report which is to be finalized in the coming weeks.

“We look to the Russian Government to address some of those recommendations, as we believe it’s incumbent on any government to ensure a democratic, free, and transparent process for its people,” the U.S. official said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday comments by senior White House officials about Russian parliamentary elections were “unacceptable,” including Clinton’s statements that Sunday’s polls in Russia were neither free nor fair.

“Comments by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the Russian parliamentary elections, as well as those of other representatives of the White House and the U.S. Department of State are unacceptable,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

International observers from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted that the election preparations were technically “well-administered across a vast territory,” but marked by “flagrant procedural violations,” including cases of ballot-stuffing, “a convergence of the state and the governing party,” limited political competition and a lack of fairness.

President Dmitry Medvedev declared Sunday’s elections free and democratic but ordered an investigation into the alleged violations.

Main news of December 5

Thousands of people gathered in downtown Moscow on Monday to protest against alleged election fraud at this weekend’s parliamentary polls, which saw a big slump in support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party

The governing United Russia party has done well in the State Duma elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said

Despite the lack of a level playing field, Russian voters made use of their right to express their choice in parliamentary elections, observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said

State Duma polls: Who won, who lost?

Russia’s parliamentary elections may have revealed a slump in support for the ruling United Russia party, but it is still too early to talk about the decline of the country’s most powerful political force, analysts say.

They agree, though, that the results of Sunday’s State Duma vote present a challenge for the party’s traditional dominance over Russian political life.

With almost all the ballots counted, it seems as if Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev’s party has won around 49.6 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent in 2007. The result means the party will lose its two-thirds majority and the ability to rewrite the constitution at will.

But United Russia will enjoy a simple majority, sufficient to push through the majority of laws without having to bargain with other parties.

Unclear loser?

“Will United Russia be able to push through the party line in the State Duma? Of course they will,” political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky said.

He added that the decline in the party’s share of the vote was a “moral blow” for United Russia rather than a defeat as such.

“If we compare United Russia’s [current] results to those gained at previous elections [in 2007],” said Alexei Mukhin of the Centre for Political Information, “We can say that United Russia was defeated.”

“But if we look at the situation objectively, it is absolutely obvious that United Russia maintains its leading position in the State Duma,” he added.

A constitutional majority is only required in a few cases – mainly to pass constitutional laws and amendments or to overcome a veto imposed on a law by the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council.

If needed, Pribylovsky said, Putin’s party will be able to persuade lawmakers from other parties to support its initiatives.

“The Federation Council is also Kremlin-oriented and quite loyal,” said Alexei Makarkin from the Center of Political Technologies.

As for United Russia, he said, “its result is a dream for any Western [political] party.”

Clear winners

But there were also other, more obvious “winners” in Sunday’s vote – namely the Communists and A Just Russia party, which are widely believed to have managed to accumulate the protest vote.

“The Communists and A Just Russia attracted the disappointed voters, many of whom represent the middle class,” Makarkin said.

The Communist Party, headed by its veteran leader Gennady Zyuganov, gained over 19 percent of the vote, increasing the number of its parliamentary seats to 92 from 57 in the previous State Duma. 

A Just Russia, a center-left party that has long been seen as United Russia’s satellite in the State Duma, managed to gain more than 13 percent of the vote, some 5 percent more than four years ago. Its State Duma faction will now increase to 64 from 38 seats.

The “protesters” who supported the Communists and A Just Russia are “unhappy with the authorities,” although “many” of them voted for United Russia in 2007, Makarkin said.

“Their optimism is now gone, and their mood has changed… The more liberal part has swung to A Just Russia, the less liberal to the Communists,” he added.

Beginning of changes?

Nikolai Petrov from Moscow Carnegie Center said he believed that despite United Russia’s continuing political dominance, Sunday elections have “dramatically changed” the political landscape in Russia.

“United Russia has lost its initiative, and now the question is whether it will be able to change the situation,” he said.

Russia is on the brink of presidential elections, and this is not an “abstract” question, he said.

“The leaders of those parties which significantly increased their representation in the Duma will have to propose positive programs to the voters,” the analyst said. “Putin is turn will also have to propose a real and concrete plan of action to strengthen his support.”

The Communists intend to nominate veteran party leader Gennady Zyuganov to challenge Putin in the March 2012 presidential polls. Sergei Mironov, a leader of A Just Russia party, said on Monday he would also seek to run.

Petrov said he believed Sunday’s vote meant Putin could no longer “count on the presidential elections going smoothly without proposing a serious election program,” he said.

Whoever was the “real” winner in the State Duma vote, United Russia now “looks weaker,” and the three other parliamentary parties – the Communists, A Just Russia and the nationalist LDPR party – “stronger” than previously, he added.

All four parties, Petrov said, “will now have to respond to the new challenges” posed by the voting results.

“This is the beginning, not the end of changes,” he said.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Russian elections: support for Vladimir Putin’s party drops sharply

Vladimir Putin‘s United Russia party is scrambling to come to terms with an election outcome that showed its support severely dropping across the country.

With 95% of votes counted, the party stood to take 49.67% in Sunday’s parliamentary election. Election monitors from opposition parties and from independent NGO Golos complained of widespread falsifications, meaning the party’s true support was possibly far lower.

The result registered Russians’ increasing suspicions of Putin’s authoritarianism, ingrained corruption and falling living standards. Solidarity, an umbrella opposition group, called a protest for 7pm local time (3pm GMT). Riot police and interior ministry troops continued to patrol parts of Moscow on Monday.

The parliamentary vote was the biggest test of public opinion following Putin’s announcement earlier this year that he plans to stand for the presidency in a March 2012 election.

Voters dealt United Russia, founded with the sole purpose of supporting Putin, a harsh blow. The party is expected to lose 77 seats in the Duma, dropping from 315 to 238. It failed to break through the important 50% barrier in the popular vote – a big drop from the more than 64% popular support it garnered in the country’s last election in 2007. Yet it will still retain a majority in the 450-seat chamber.

United Russia was forced to deny rumours that Boris Gryzlov, party chairman and speaker of the Duma, would resign following the result.

“We are quite satisfied with the speaker who we currently have,” Sergei Neverov, a top party official, told journalists on Monday. “Today we can confidently say that the United Russia party received the moral right to continue the course of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin,” he said.

Another party official sought to put to rest worries that the result could put into doubt Putin’s victory in the presidential vote set for 4 March. “As soon as we lose our confidence, we have nothing to do,” Andrei Vorobyov, chairman of the party’s central executive committee, told journalists.

“These 10 years [that Putin has been in power], it is very easy to lose confidence, but today it is at a very high level,” he said. “Our candidate is known – it is Putin, our leader, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that our candidate wins in the first round.”

Results showed that Putin’s party reached a low in the region of Yaroslavl, taking just 29% of the vote. It got a boost, however, in Chechnya, which is ruled by ruthless leader Ramzan Kadyrov. With nearly 100% of voters turning out, United Russia took 99.48% of the vote, results showed. It also took more than 90% in neighbouring Dagestan.

The New Region newspaper noted that “the record in central Russia was brought by patients of psychiatric clinics, who gave more than 90% of votes to United Russia”.

Russians continued to register cases of falsification through the night and into Monday. News reports on state-run television appeared to show results that implied turnout in some regions was as high as 146%.

Vorobyov, the United Russia official, said the party would seek to form a coalition with the other three parties that made it into the Duma – the Communists, the far-right LDPR and Just Russia. All three have long collaborated with the Kremlin. The liberal Yabloko party, which failed to reach the threshold to enter the Duma, said it would challenge the election results.

Preliminary results: United Russia wins with 50%, loses parliamentary majority

With almost all the votes counted in the parliamentary election, Putin-led United Russia has received the support of fewer voters than in 2007, but still remains the biggest party in the Duma.

According to the Russian Central Election Commission, the United Russia got almost 50 per cent of the votes, the Communist Party (KPRF) is second with 19 per cent, followed by Fair Russia with around 13 per cent, and the LDPR with a little under 12 per cent.

This means that currently the United Russia can expect to have 238 representatives in the lower house, KPRF 92, Fair Russia 64, and the LDPR may get 56. For Putin’s party this result is something of a setback. The opponents, on the contrary, will increase their representation in the parliament.

Liberal party Yabloko (which got slightly more than 3 per cent), the Right Cause (with about 0.6 per cent) and Patriots of Russia (with a little less than 1 per cent) are likely to remain outsiders since none of them managed to cross the required 7 per cent threshold and make it into the State Duma.

The final official results are yet to be announced but it is unlikely that the situation will change dramatically. What seems to be clear now is that the support for United Russia has declined for the first time since it was created in 2001.

The chairman of the party, Vladimir Putin, who cast his ballot early in the afternoon, was asked at the polling station what he expected from the elections. “A good result for United Russia,” he told journalists.

All in all, seven registered political parties were taking part in the elections on December 4. The front-runners, United Russia, the Liberal Democrats (LDPR), the Communists and Fair Russia, had representatives in the Duma of the fifth convocation, which held its last session on November 23. Yabloko, the Right Cause, and the Patriots of Russia are only hoping to get seats in the 450-seat parliament.

Voter turnout varied depending on the region, with the North Caucasus traditionally being rather active, with citizens of Central Russia, including Moscow and St Petersburg, having less enthusiasm for casting their ballots.

The overall voter turnout so far is estimated at 60.2 per cent, as announced by the Central Election Commission. This would appear to be lower than the 63.71 per cent turnout in the 2007 poll, although final figures are yet to be determined.

United Russia’s lead comes as no surprise to anyone. Nevertheless, the once mighty political force has lost points compared to 2007’s Duma elections when it scored a landslide victory with over 64% of the vote and got 315 seats in the parliament. Recently it has often been subject to criticism for its inability to curb corruption or to narrow the huge gap between the country’s rich and poor, and for political and economic stagnation.

However, United Russia has hit back saying that it is a party of action and that its course has proven to be good for the country. President Dmitry Medvedev, who tops the United Russia list for the election, noted earlier last week that changes in Russia are obvious. He admitted though that there are still many problems and that much has to be done.

“We are not ashamed going into the elections,” Medvedev pointed out speaking at his and Putin’s meeting with supporters.

Last month the president stressed that United Russia is “an efficient party which has taken responsibility both for the economy and social care system, and for the safety of our citizens, and for our wellbeing.”

“We never promise the impossible, but we always do what is possible. We’ve had successes and we’ve had decisions that have not been implemented to the full. Of course, we’ve made mistakes and we deserve criticism for them. But it’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes. We are a party of action and, whatever some say, we have done quite a lot. It’s a fact you cannot deny, and that’s what makes us so strong,” he said.

­Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told RT the United Russia Party is satisfied with the result, even though its popularity has dropped.

“We have to remember that [the United Russia] party was a ruling party in the country during a very harsh and tough period of the last four years, a time of unbelievable economic crisis and the party managed to minimize the consequences of this crisis together with the government. But certainly a party cannot satisfy everyone in this country. Though it lost some percentage, it proved to be the leading political power in the country,” insists Peskov.

­Igor Khokhlov from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations believes it would be incorrect to state that something went wrong for United Russia.

“Back in 2007, United Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin were considered to be the force that led Russia from the [chaos] of the 1990s, and, actually, Vladimir Putin effectively fought [the] consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union and economic problems Russia experienced back in [the] 1990s,” he told RT. “But now, a new generation of people is coming to vote – those who grew in [the] 2000s, and they have never seen economic problems… they consider this absolutely normal, and they have different demands, and that’s why the political spectrum is widening.”

Russian parliamentary elections: rousing from a long slumber | Editorial

Vladimir Putin made it crystal clear what he expected out of yesterday’s parliamentary election – a national show of loyalty. Parliament was no place for the opposition. He told shipyard workers in St Petersburg: “If someone wants to watch a show, then they need to go to the circus, the movies or theatre.” This is akin to the Duma speaker’s comment that parliament was no place for debate. Putin naturally thought he would get his way. To combat a boycott of the Duma elections as a popular protest option, he needed to ensure a respectable turnout. It came. It always will, if you tell every bureaucrat, every public sector worker, every regional and local government, student, teacher, policemen, soldier that their job or regional grant or piece of tarmacked road depends on it.

Golos, an EU and US financed Russian vote-monitoring group, clocked up more than 5,300 electoral violations and put them on a map, kartanarusheniy.ru, before that was taken down yesterday by a denial of service attack. Also crippled yesterday were the websites of Ekho Moskvy, Snob.ru, New Times, Livejournal and anyone else wishing to publish real-time evidence about how the vote was being rigged in favour of the ruling party, United Russia. Golos, in particular, faced a concerted campaign of harassment because it showed it was serious. It had 3,000 observers in about half of Russia’s 83 regions. On Saturday its director was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for 12 hours and had her laptop confiscated. The Russian deputy ambassador to Berlin issued a grovelling apology when summoned by the German foreign ministry last month, after a respected German political scientist who had helped Golos was refused entry at the same airport and put in a detention centre, even though he had a valid invitation and visa. But it is all part of the same campaign. Putin compared Golos to Judas, which makes him, by extension, Jesus.

Putin has no serious rivals, except the growing national fatigue with the semi-authoritarian system he created. Even those who welcomed the leadership he provided to stabilise Russia in his first two terms of president are growing weary at the prospect of another two terms, when he will be re-elected in March next year. If Putin’s popularity is on the wane, that of the party he created, United Russia, is in a nosedive. In elections in 2007 it secured a landslide majority of 64.3% of the vote or 315 seats in the Duma. That majority was enhanced by the sort of vote rigging which was out in force yesterday, but if that had been entirely absent, pollsters and independent political analysts say their natural support would today be about 30% – way below what Putin needs to ensure a majority in a quiescent Duma. As it is, three exit polls last night showed a marked drop in support for United Russia. A poll for Russian TV showed 48.5% of support, which would give Putin’s party 220 seats, and two polls, from Vtsiom and the Fom group gave United Russia 48% and 46% respectively.

If confirmed, this spells trouble. United Russia should lose its constitutional majority. Even after the bullying and blatant manipulation (election posters for United Russia bore an uncanny resemblance to the official posters of the Central Election Commission) ordinary voters were unwilling to play ball. It is not as if they trust anyone else. Anyone who thinks that the forlorn band of Yeltsin-era democrats will benefit from this is deluding themselves. Russians will take a long time to forget who created the system that turned government into a massive takeaway. But an electoral embarrassment could herald the breakup of United Russia as a party. It is quite possible for Putin to turn on his own creation. Although he was their presidential candidate, he himself never became a member. In the words of Marx (Groucho) he never joined a club that would have him as a member. The Duma should become an unexpectedly lively place.

Putin party suffers big loss in Russia vote

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party suffered a sharp drop in support Sunday in parliamentary elections, winning the most votes but falling far short of the majority it has enjoyed for years and possibly failing to clear the 50-percent mark, early results showed.

With more than 52 percent of the ballots counted, the ruling United Russia party had picked up nearly half (49.68 percent) – a far cry from the commanding two-thirds constitutional majority the party has held in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, for the past four years, according to the official count.

If born out by the full vote count, the result would mark a major electoral setback for the political party that Putin leads and that has been the dominant political organization in Russia for much of the past decade.

The Communist Party (KPRF) has 19.70 percent, the moderate A Just Russia got 12.91 percent and the nationalist Liberal Democrats (LDPR), 12.18 percent. Voter turnout was above 50 percent, according to the preliminary results.

Putin, 59, who last month accepted United Russia’s nomination as the party’s candidate in presidential elections scheduled for next March, appeared at party campaign headquarters after early results were announced and described the vote as an “optimal” outcome.

Standing alongside President Dmitry Medvedev, his hand-picked successor when he left the Kremlin in 2008 after two terms as president, Putin told supporters that the results of Sunday’s voting “really reflect the situation in the country.”

He said the Duma election, in which exit polls placed the Communist Party in a distant second place with around 20 percent of the vote, would pave the way for “steady development of Russia” in the years ahead.

Both Putin and Medvedev appeared intent on emphasizing the legitimacy of the election and the balance of political forces it would yield in the next Duma, with Medvedev saying that United Russia had run a convincing campaign and even a 50-percent result “testifies to real democracy.”

Medvedev acknowledged, however, that United Russia, long able to impose its will on the national legislature with or without the support of other political parties, “will have to join coalition bloc agreements” in order to get its legislation through the Duma.

“This is normal, that is what parliamentarianism is,” Medvedev said. “That is democracy, and our colleagues and leaders of the relevant fractions said that they were ready for that.”

The elections were punctuated by thousands of claims of violations both from independent observers and the government, with the Interior Ministry alone announcing it had received and would investigate more than 1,000 complaints of irregularities.

Election day was also marked by what appeared to be concerted DDoS hacker attacks that temporarily took down a number of websites that had published reports of elections violations including those of media, popular blogs and independent election observers.

Near-complete official results were due to be announced Monday at 10:00 a.m. Moscow time (06:00 GMT), by which time 99 percent of the ballots will have been counted, the election commission said.

Sunday’s vote was considered an important test for Putin ahead of the presidential election next March and analysts said the reduced support for United Russia increased the likelihood that Putin, who remains the most popular politician in Russia, may not win outright in the first round.

“It will depend upon whom other parties nominate and how well they campaign,” political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said.

He added, however, that the mitigated outcome for United Russia would force the party accustomed to passing legislation without regard for support from others to negotiate and cooperate with competing political parties.

“By all means, this is good for the development of political culture in Russia,” Minchenko said.

S.Ossetia protesters refuse to leave square for Duma polls

Thousands of opposition protesters in the partly recognized South Ossetian republic have refused to leave the square to cast their votes in the Russian parliamentary elections due on Sunday.

The protesters, most of whom have Russian citizenship, are rallying in support of former presidential candidate Alla Dzhioyeva who won the November 27 runoff presidential polls in the former Georgian republic, as preliminary results showed. The court, however, annulled the outcome, citing violations.

The Russian embassy in South Ossetia, a republic recognized by Russia and few other countries, said they would decide on Sunday whether to provide a mobile polling station for the protesters on the square, Russian consul Tamerlan Zaseyev said.

He added that under law mobile polling stations are only used in emergencies, for example for disabled people.

In the runoff, Dzhioyeva emerged with 57%, leaving behind Kremlin-backed rival Anatoly Bibilov with 40%.

With a population of 70,000, South Ossetia has been a volatile area since the 1990s. Tensions between Georgia and Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia exploded into a five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. South Ossetia has since been recognized by Russia and enjoyed financial support from the bigger neighbor.


‘Battlefield’ Today: Congress unveils 53 ‘Jihadist’ plots since 9/11

US is facing a spike in homegrown jihadist-inspired terrorist activity, research by Congress says. It seems that a new bill that allows for Americans to be held for terrorism-related charges and detained without trial will not go to waste.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, released November 15, has criticized President Obama’s domestic Countering Violent Extremism strategy (CVE) saying “the Administration’s CVE strategy lacks specifics” including only “general philosophical statements and the insistence that the strategy does not center solely around fighting one particular radical ideology.”

As of December 3, American counter-terrorist strategy is very specific, targeting Americans with all available military might. Under the new bill, Americans can be arrested, detained, tortured and interrogated without charge or trial. The bill was passed through the Senate on December with overwhelming support from 93 per cent of lawmakers.

The report, largely overlooked by the media, seems to have conveniently been conducted prior to the vote for the new legislation, as if to inspire support. It warns of a “spike” of homegrown terrorist activity in the US.

Altogether since September 11, 2001, CRS estimates that there have been 53 homegrown violent jihadist plots or attacks, with 32 people arrested between 2009 and 2011. Two of those plots resulted in attacks that killed 14 people.

The report titled American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat defines the term “jihadist” as “radicalized individuals using Islam as ideological and/or religious justification for their belief in the establishment of global caliphate,” a jurisdiction governed by a Muslim civil and religious leader known as a caliph.

According to CRS most of the 2009-2011 homegrown plots “likely reflect a trend in jihadist terrorist activity away from schemes directed by core members of significant terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.”

This means homegrown violent jihadists are acting on their own accord, without coordination and support from international terrorist networks. That results in a number of conventional shortcomings, such as lack of “deep understanding of specialized tradecraft such as bomb making.” Financing, training camps and support networks are also unavailable to American jihadists; all of that keeps them from independently engaging in large-scale suicide strikes.

The report says that because of these limitations, homegrown jihadists are likely to turn to violence that requires less preparation, “such as assaults using firearms.” This new strategy pose challenges for law enforcement, intelligence and security officials who detect and investigate terrorist activity in the US.

An airline bombing attempt by Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka “the underwear bomber”, “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, and the perpetrators of the Transatlantic Airlines plot of 2006 are not addressed in the report because it does not study terrorist activity against the US conducted by foreigners, only the “homegrown” variety.

Bizarre ‘Women for Herman Cain’ campaign

Did Herman Cain act sexually inappropriate with a few (how many has it been now?) women? While the presidential hopeful tries to close the lid on that one, dozens of women are apparently logging onto his website to show their support.

They are the Women for Herman Cain. And they are real. Apparently.

At what first appears to be the most brilliant Anonymous-led political hack ever, a bizarre new page on HermanCain.com sprung up literally overnight. In it, Cain and company have tried to recapture the women’s vote with an unusual campaign called Women for Herman Cain. Gloria, his elusive wife, is chairing the group.

“’Women For Cain’ is an online national fellowship of women dedicated to helping elect Herman Cain as the next president of the United States,” reads a mission statement on the site. “Mr. Cain has been a strong advocate for women throughout his lifetime, defending and promoting the issues of quality health care, family, education, equality in the workplace and many other concerns so important to American women.”

Depending on who you ask, however, Cain has also been a strong advocate of groping staffers in the back of his limo.

The page, which has managed to spiral all over the Web in mere hours, asks female friends of Cain to submit video testimonials encouraging the pizzaman’s campaign. As they collect submissions, a barrage of oh-so-authentic (and almost always hilarious) text excerpts from his loyal fan base of ladies are posted for Cain followers to see what kind of crowd they are messing with each time they deliver a new 999 joke.

Clearly the Cain campaign has an editor picking what can go online and what can’t, but given their selections, it seems like they didn’t go much further than the nearest Godfather’s Pizza to staff their Web team.

One thing the comments do seem to have in common, however, is an almost-constant slandering of his accusers.

According to the New York Daily News, which broke the story, one California woman writes, “Dear Mrs. Cain, Don’t pay attention to these pathetic husband-less women who are jealous of women like you in happy long-term marriages.”

“I cannot believe you had time for an affair. If you are ill and fighting for your life,suffering through chemotherapy,how can you have time between hospital visits and family time? Wouldn’t you be too sick to participate in a make-believe affair?” Asks a Missouri woman. “I believe these ‘women’ are looking for money and attention and have been groomed by the ‘Demonacrats’ to be a bunch of bad actress.”

For other Cain campaigners, they just think he’s super.

“Sir, I firmly believe that you were sent to our nation through Divine Providence and I believe that you are the man to preserve our Republic for our children,” writes Robin Haraway from Tennessee.

Yvonne Settlemire from Arizona adds that the candidate has her support because “He the only one that wants to talk about the REAL issues.”

One doesn’t have to dig much deeper than an interview with GQ that the candidate cut three weeks ago in which Cain tackled such dire foreign policy questions with answers such as, “A manly man don’t want it piled high with vegetables! He would call that a sissy pizza.”

Alright, so maybe that wasn’t in response to a question on foreign policy, but you get what I’m saying.

Other testimonials range from quick quips of support to lengthy, detailed diatribes about the gentleman that is Mr. Cain.

“How can We the People choose who WE want (you!) if you allow them to run you off?” asks Debbie Stevens-Paulsen from Oklahoma. “Gingrich has DONE all the things they’re accusing you of, and Romney is a RINO.. we call him Obama Lite. PLEASE don’t give up. Speak up loud and clear that you are not giving up, and please let Gloria speak out again. I’ll admit that when I heard that you sent $ to a woman w/out your wife knowing, it gave me pause.. I wouldn’t appreciate my hubby sending $ to another woman w/out my approval… but then I thought about and discussed it with everyone I know. We came to the conclusion that you’re a good man worth the benefit of the doubt. We figure that you’re probably a very busy man who comes in contact w/ tons of people daily, and that you probably both have friends the other isn’t friends with, and that you have helped other people, men and women, without discussing it, because that’s just what you do, you’re a softie (stop that now!) and got taken advantage of. That happens.”

“I have NO doubts about you after thinking and praying about it,” adds Debbie.

Can the Cain Train keep on rollin’? With these gals on board, there’s no telling.

South Ossetia’s Alla Dzhioyeva Comes Into Her Own

Former South Ossetian Education Minister Alla Dzhioyeva is emerging as an unlikely figurehead for an unlikely public movement.

But the 61-year-old mother of two who, according to unofficial preliminary results, won the second round of the breakaway Georgian region’s election to choose a de facto leader on November 27, has become the rallying point for a populace worn ragged by war and corruption.

Following early indications that Dzhioyeva defeated Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov — the preferred candidate of South Ossetia’s Russian patrons — in the election, the South Ossetian Supreme Court annulled the ballot, accepting Bibilov’s charges that Dzhioyeva’s campaign had bribed and intimidated voters.

The region’s parliament quickly scheduled a new election for March 2012 and, for good measure, banned Dzhioyeva from participating in it.

All week, crowds have taken to the streets in the capital, Tskhinvali, both to express their support for Dzhioyeva and to protest what they see as a brazen effort to subvert an election that was generally regarded as fair and democratic.

A young man among the protesters this week, who identified himself only by the first name Sarmat, told RFE/RL that the movement was becoming bigger than just Dzhioyeva’s campaign.

“You know, I am not so much a supporter of Alla Dzhioyeva as I am a supporter of the idea that everything should be done lawfully,” Sarmat said.

​​”On November 27, the people chose their president, so why has a situation developed in which the newly elected president of the Republic of South Ossetia suddenly is denied recognition that she won the election? It’s a complicated situation. People have gathered on Theater Square to demand their right to choose.”

Irina Gagloyeva, a former government spokeswoman who now heads the IR media center in Tskhinvali, agrees. “People want the truth; they want to see the law working and their constitutional rights respected,” she says. “After all, they made their choice and that choice must be recognized, even if someone doesn’t like it. [At the protests] I see people who voted for Bibilov, but now they believe that the choice of the majority must be respected. If you respect the choice of the people, you respect the people.”

Against Long Odds

South Ossetia is an unlikely place for such a movement to emerge. The tiny pro-Russian region declared its independence from Georgia in 1990 and fought a bloody civil war to secure a shaky de facto independence that is heavily reliant on economic, political, and military support from Moscow. Some 50,000 Georgians who fled their homes in the fighting in South Ossetia remain displaced and cannot vote in the territory’s elections.

Following the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Moscow recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian province, Abkhazia, as independent states.

However, Georgia and the overwhelming majority of the international community do not recognize the regions, their governments — or the recent elections — as legitimate.

Current leader Eduard Kokoity is facing pressure from the Kremlin and voters at home.Current leader Eduard Kokoity is facing pressure from the Kremlin and voters at home.
​​Even though, in South Ossetia’s case, that election might yet bring to office a person openly opposed by the Kremlin and the first woman to head a political formation in the entire Caucasus region since the legendary Queen Tamar ruled Georgia in the 12th century.

Dzhioyeva does not have the fiery showmanship or charisma of, say, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She is more in the mold of former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva — patient, practical, tenacious, and accessible. Although corruption allegations have been thrown at her at various points in her career, none of them have stuck. Her reputation is so solid that almost no one seems to have even considered that Bibilov’s allegations of electoral fraud might have merit.

Building Momentum

Dzhioyeva’s road toward South Ossetia’s de facto presidency had an unpromising start. But when opposition leader Dzhambolat Tedeyev — a former wrestling champion who is currently trainer of the Russian national freestyle-wrestling team — was barred from participating in the election, he threw his support behind her. As did former Defense Minister and war hero Anatoly Barankevich, who actively campaigned for her. The portraits of both men appear prominently on Dzhioyeva’s campaign posters.

“Some people have said that Barankevich or Tedeyev will manage her,” Barankevich told supporters at campaign appearances last month. “But that is not true. She manages herself.”

Dzhioyeva’s low-budget campaign commercials were a hodge-podge of jerky clips from various appearances in which she promised transparency and the protection of people’s rights and asserted that the people of South Ossetia shouldn’t have to live “a slave’s life.”

Dzhioyeva supporters hold up a sign saying, “We are people, not sheep.”Dzhioyeva supporters hold up a sign saying, “We are people, not sheep.”
​​The message resonated with the territory’s tiny population of just 30,000, fed up with the rule of President Eduard Kokoity, who has presided over the region since 2001 and whose administration is widely perceived as hopelessly corrupt and authoritarian.

As her campaign gained momentum, Dzhioyeva seemed to blossom and gain confidence. Journalists noted that her hands trembled even in the run-up to last week’s election. But now she seems determined and sure of herself and her cause.

“I absolutely believe that no one can steal our victory. I absolutely believe that the forces of light will defeat the forces of darkness,” she told RFE/RL on November 28. “And you will have the opportunity to congratulate me on my victory.”

‘An Irreproachable Strategy’

Speaking to supporters on November 30 in central Tskhinvali, Dzhioyeva seemed quite transformed from the person who campaigned a few weeks back and even more determined to carry on.

“Throughout all this, we have felt enormous support from the people. Now I am asking you to ensure that no force in society can break our solidarity with you,” she said.

“I also want to address the security forces, which have very meritoriously conducted themselves all this time: You are also our sons, and there is no force that can pit us against one another. I would like to thank you for professionally carrying out your duties.”

The Kremlin’s favored candidate, Anatoly Bibilov, seems to be on the outside looking in.The Kremlin’s favored candidate, Anatoly Bibilov, seems to be on the outside looking in.
​​Since the Supreme Court ruling against her, Dzhioyeva’s patience and moderation have been credited with helping keep the situation from getting out of control. But she is not backing down. She has formed an advisory council to conduct negotiations with the Kokoity regime and has organized a petition calling for the disbanding of the parliament that voted to bar her from participating in the rescheduled election next year.

She insists, clearly but with undue emotion, that she is the lawfully elected leader of South Ossetia. She has declined to meet with Sergei Vinokurov, the official that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dispatched to Tskhinvali to defuse the standoff, saying the situation is an internal matter for South Ossetia.

“I think that Alla Dzhioyeva’s campaign — and she herself — have chosen an irreproachable strategy — that is, peaceful demonstrations and a willingness to negotiate,” says RFE/RL Echo of the Caucasus correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who has been following the situation in Tskhinvali.

“They are open to dialogue with the authorities. In the face of such a strategy, it is very difficult to provoke any sort of aggressive actions.”

Written in Prague by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL’s Georgian and Russian services. Liz Fuller contributed to this report

Russia’s nationalists go to the polls

While Western liberals might celebrate the startling decline in support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary polls, they are unlikely to be as happy about the steady rise in nationalist sentiments.

“Nationalism is the most relevant topic in Russia today,” Alexander Belov, the head of Russia’s outlawed ultra-right Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), told RIA Novosti. “Both the ruling party and the opposition benefit from flirting with nationalist sentiment.”

While there were flare-ups of racial tension in the Soviet Union, the authorities managed – on the whole – to keep the lid on inter-ethnic hostilities. But the chaos accompanying the collapse of the world’s first socialist state saw a rapid deterioration in relations between Russia’s many peoples – in particular between ethnic Russians and natives of the volatile, mainly Muslim, North Caucasus republics.

Over 7,000 nationalists recently marched in Moscow to pledge support for ethnic Russians and call for the Kremlin to cut funding to the North Caucasus. The Stop Feeding The Caucasus! campaign has been fuelled in part by extravagant showcase projects in Chechnya, which has seen extensive reconstruction after two separatist wars.

The march was attended by influential blogger and anti-graft activist Alexei Navalny, a decision that both dismayed his more liberal supporters and demonstrated the grassroots strength of nationalist sentiments in Russia.

“Navalny might be able to consolidate the opposition around him,” Belov said. “But perhaps the people are not yet sufficiently tired of humiliation – the time has not come yet.”

The march came just under a year since thousands of nationalists and football hooligans had rioted near Red Square after the killing of a Spartak Moscow fan by a North Caucasus native. President Dmitry Medvedev called the violence on Manezh Square “a threat to the very stability of Russia.”

Statistics suggest though that participants in these two landmark events were just the tip of the nationalist iceberg. In opinion polls, some 60% of Russians say they support the slogan “Russia for the Russians” and race-hate attacks remain high both in Moscow and other big cities.

But the issue has remained, as Belov indicated, an explosive sideline to Sunday’s vote, with only the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) forthright about its nationalist sentiments.

It’s unclear if this reluctance to capture the nationalist high-ground is down to a plea by Medvedev before the polls to “avoid” the topic in election campaigning. Medvedev also said that the Stop Feeding The Caucasus! campaign was reminiscent of Soviet-era complaints from ethnic Russians that Moscow was too generous towards then-socialist republics in “Central Asia, Ukraine and the Baltic region.”

“And the end result was that the Soviet Union collapsed,” Medvedev warned.

One party who certainly haven’t heeded Medvedev’s words is the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Election campaign posters all across Moscow portray the party’s colorful and bellicose leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, never one to shy from pandering to populism, staring down at passersby above the slogan “The LDPR is for Russians!”

“We don’t hide behind the screen of tolerance,” LDPR State Duma deputy Yaroslav Nilov told RIA Novosti. “We are the only party to have defended – for the last 22 years – the interests of ethnic Russians…We call on everyone to stop humiliating the Russian people.”

Nilov said that “proportionately, more ethnic Russians are dying.” And the statistics would seem to back him up – preliminary results from last year’s census show Russia’s population has fallen from just over 145 million to 142.9 million since 2002, with the only population increases in areas where ethnic Russians are not a majority. Alcohol abuse, a health system largely unfit for purpose and low birth rates among ethnic Russians have all contributed to the crisis.

He denied, however, that the “for Russians!” slogan implied the LDPR was against any of the country’s dozens of other ethnic groups. “Everyone should be equal,” he said, “including when it comes to federal budget funding.”

But many nationalists, wary of the LDPR’s strong Kremlin ties and non-confrontational voting record, are dismissive of Zhirinovsky.

“He’s just a showman,” one contributor to an online forum “Is Zhirinovsky a nationalist?” wrote. “He’s not up to it,” suggested another. “He’s just exploiting the movement.” “In words, yes, in actions, no,” another added.

Russia’s hawkish NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, looked like he might be the man to unite nationalist sympathizers when he seemed set to make a return to the country’s domestic politics earlier this year.

“Some peoples in Russia are more equal than others, and the Russian people are now in the position of a discriminated majority,” Rogozin told a political forum also attended by Medvedev. “Multiculturalism has not led to integration of minorities but to the creation of a fifth column.”

But Rogozin instead declined to register his Rodina (Motherland) party for the polls, and threw his weight behind United Russia.

Despite the lack of a clear nationalist push for power, something has undoubtedly changed on the Russian political landscape.

“The new trend is liberal nationalism,” Belov said. “Its rhetoric is reminiscent of that of the early U.S. republicans.”

“United Russia and its key figures are now fading, no one will believe them whatever they might come up with,” he added.

Change may well be coming to Russia. But, as ever here, it is unlikely to be either predictable or entirely to the West’s liking.


ESA halts attempts to contact Russian Mars moon probe

The European Space Agency (ESA) said on Friday it had ended attempts to establish contact with Phobos-Grunt, Russia’s failed probe to one of Mars’ moons.

“In consultation and agreement with Phobos-Grunt mission controllers, ESA engineers will end ESTRACK ground station support today,” the agency said. “ESA ground teams remain available to assist the Phobos-Grunt mission if indicated by any change in the situation”

The Phobos-Grunt probe was launched on November 9, but its engines failed to put it on course for the Red Planet. The craft, designed to bring back rock and soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos, is currently moving along a so-called support orbit.

According to NASA, Russia has failed in all of its 17 attempts to study the Red Planet close-up since 1960. The most recent failure before this month occurred in 1996, when Russia lost its Mars-96 orbiter during launch.