Kremlin Talks to Opposition as It Readies ‘Victory’
For years, Vladimir Putin’s regime had only two approaches to its opponents: pretend they do not exist, or portray them as foreign agents. After tens of thousands of Russians answered the opposition’s call and went to the streets to demand free elections, neither option was any longer workable. On Monday—for the first time ever—Putin’s lieutenant, outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev, called opposition leaders for a meeting. The leaders of “non-registered” parties, including Boris Nemtsov of the Popular Freedom Party, Vladimir Ryzhkov of the Republican Party, and Sergei Udaltsov of the United Labor Front, were invited to Gorki, the presidential retreat near Moscow, to discuss the implementation of reforms promised after the December protests.
During the three-hour meeting, opposition leaders presented the president with the main demands of the protest movement, among them early elections and the release of political prisoners. Nemtsov handed Medvedev a list of 37 political prisoners currently held in Russian jails, including former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He also spoke of the need to impose a two-term limit on the president, replacing the current constitutional limitation of “two consecutive terms”—the loophole that has allowed Putin to run again after serving four years as prime minister.
Medvedev tried his best to appear receptive. He described Russia’s political system as “far from ideal,” promising to “think” about a two-term limit and “review” every case on the political prisoners’ list. He also said that reinstated gubernatorial elections should not require a pre-approval of candidates by the Kremlin, and promised that the new membership requirement for registering political parties will not exceed 1,000 people (the current minimum is 40,000). The Duma will begin consideration of the reform package next week, and Medvedev is promising to sign it into law before he leaves the Kremlin on May 7th.
A much more important date for the regime, however, is March 4th—the day of the presidential election. It appears that Putin has firmly decided to avoid a risky runoff and declare “victory” in the first round. Preparations are already under way. This week, the government-owned VTsIOM polling agency predicted that Putin will receive an incredible 58.6 percent of the vote. The independent Levada Center polling firm gives him 37 percent in an “open” poll (with respondents naming a candidate on their own), and 43 percent in a “closed” poll (with respondents choosing from the list)—either way, not nearly enough for a first-round victory. Independent election monitors are stepping up efforts to catch the falsifiers red-handed through a new online nationwide registry of voting protocols that will be updated through the night of March 4th.
If the scale of vote fraud approaches that of the recent Duma election, March 5th will likely see the largest public protests to date. This, apparently, is the only way to get the Kremlin’s attention.
Vladimir Kara-Murza's blog is at http://www.worldaffairsjournal...