When I got to the polling station near my home to cast my ballot in Russia's presidential elections last Sunday, I noticed differences in the way the place looked compared to the December 4, 2011 State Duma election, which led to a wave of mass anti-government protests across Russia.
As opposed to what I saw three months ago, the voting cabins were equipped with curtains, ensuring really private last minute decision-making.
Ballot boxes themselves were transparent, making stuffing them more problematic. And the web cameras ensured anyone could watch what went on in most polling stations across Russia in real time. This time – as opposed to December - everything was done to ensure that the vote looked free and fair. So was it?
There were fewer instances of stuffed ballot boxes and altered final voting protocols. However it seems that absentee voting (traditionally one of the most effective vote-rigging techniques) markedly increased and civil servants all across Russia were prodded to vote “the right way,” i.e., for Vladimir Putin - as was the case before.
Still there is no doubt that Mr. Putin has won - and probably won in the first round - even if in reality he didn’t get the 64 per cent ascribed by the official vote count. So what does it mean for him, for the opposition and for Russia's future?
Firstly, this election was not about “Who?” Not even Putin's opponents doubted he would win. It was “How?” that was most important. Putin's staggering official result ensures that the March 4 vote will continue to be seen by many Russians as not completely honest. Had the current prime-minister decided to apply the brakes to the vote-rigging machine and won with more modest figures, his ascendancy would have been more difficult to challenge.
Secondly, even with all the dirty tricks Putin failed to win Moscow, scoring only 42 per cent of the vote there. The runner up in Russia's capital was not the dour Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader, long-since domesticated by the Kremlin. He would have probably been horrified had he ever had a chance to win. But the second place in Moscow went to billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the only new face in the race.
Mr. Prokhorov entered the race in December, ostensibly with Mr. Putin's blessing, seemingly to placate and distract the growing number of people dissatisfied by his system of government, mainly in Russia's big cities. Nationwide, Mr. Prokhorov polled close to 8 percent, taking a respectable third place. That alone is a sign that Russians are warming up to the idea of new faces in politics. But in Moscow his result was nearly three times higher than the national average. This is not so much due to the charm of his personality (although his performance markedly improved towards the end of the campaign), but to a kind of protest voting. “We want change!” is the signal the “angry citizens,” as the Kremlin's former propaganda chief Vladislav Surkov called the protesters, are sending out loud and clear. Declining support in Moscow should worry Mr. Putin, a lot. Historically no Russian leader who lost it was able to continue governing Russia as usual. Not for long. Mikhail Gorbachev learned that lesson - to his chagrin - twenty years ago.
Thirdly, all observers noticed that this was Vladimir Putin's first presidential election in which he did not play the role of a benign ruler, accepting the accolades of a grateful population. To the contrary, he mounted a significant effort to stage a real campaign to rally his support base around him.
The paradox is that he wasn't arguing with his official opponents, Messrs Zyuganov or Prokhorov, or with the Kremlin's pet nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky or faceless former head of the Federation Council Sergei Mironov. Putin's sharp, war-like rhetoric was aimed at the opposition organizing street protests – i.e. those, who officially do not exist as a political force. In a strange way these few weeks provided the opposition with a de facto legitimacy while casting serious doubts over Mr. Putin's own. His ability to rule unchallenged has been seriously undermined.
Fourthly, this does not mean that opposition forces are in for smooth sailing. They are diverse politically and ideologically, and lack a leader who could unite them on a clear, concise and mutually acceptable platform. Some of their supporters will no doubt feel disenchanted now that they face Mr. Putin's inevitable return to the presidency. The opposition forces also have only rudimentary support networks in the regions.
The government has granted concessions to the protest movement, in the form of liberalized laws on registration of new parties and a return (albeit in a curtailed form) of direct gubernatorial elections in Russia's regions. This is the opposition leaders' only chance to turn what until now was more of a civil rights movement into a political force to be reckoned with. From the municipal councilors' level all the way to the regional governments it has to make its voice heard. This is a tall - but not at all impossible - order to fill. This task is facilitated by a steadily growing “Putin fatigue” in the big cities. It would be careless for Russia's president-elect to ignore this new reality.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.