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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Vote rigging was easy for Russia’s leader

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE COLUMNIST

The Russian government outdid itself rigging the presidential election in Russia, delivering an overwhelming majority of votes to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Extensive voting irregularities reported by independent observers failed to bring about the expected massive protests in Moscow, which was flooded with his supporters brought at government expense from provinces by the thousands.

But that precautionary measure was hardly needed. No mass protests were likely to happen because Russians en masse have suffered too much from social upheavals over the past century to risk losing their tolerable existence in the name of social liberties and human rights.

Although thousands of better-educated and predominantly young people in Moscow hit the streets and protested after a rigged parliamentary election last December, their protest was not followed by others.

According to the official count, the rigging yielded more than enough votes to guarantee Mr. Putin, 59, victory in the election.

He was distantly followed by a communist, who was trailed by a nationalist, a business tycoon, and a socialist. A liberal candidate was barred from running.

So far, Mr. Putin, arguably the richest person on the planet, has played his cards right.

Brought to power by the late President Boris Yeltsin in 2000 in exchange for immunity from prosecution at the height of Kremlin corruption scandals, the ex-KGB officer has used his business and secret police connections to bring his buddies and former colleagues into the government and onto the boards of directors of key companies; he then used their support to subjugate the parliament and the judiciary and to undermine independent media and nongovernmental organizations.

Mr. Putin also has been careful to let enough of the revenues from the country’s natural gas and oil exports trickle into the social sphere and lead to a marked increase in the minimal wages, retirees’ pensions, and government employees’ compensation, including police and military compensation. These measures have allowed for a gradual increase in people’s well-being despite prices having about doubled under Mr. Putin.

Most recently, he has delayed the annual increase in utility prices and promised to boost government spending on social needs.

With all the nuisances such as free press, viable opposition, and democratic institutions out of the way, having the country’s bureaucrats — whom he lets steal without punishment — rig the election in his favor was a trivial task.

Just about anywhere else among the world’s major economic powers, with the exception of, maybe, China, a leader like that would face the wrath of the people. Not in Russia. To be sure, thousands of people turned out at an anti-Putin rally in downtown Moscow but that’s it.

Paradoxically, it is also the country’s systemic corruption that guarantees immunity to Mr. Putin and those who helped rig the election in his favor. Not only does it make it possible to rig the election, it is also responsible for Russia’s 1998 debt default that had wiped out savings, impoverishing millions and setting the low benchmark that makes all Putin handouts look like major improvements in well-being. In fact, they are dwarfed by the country’s revenues, which have been boosted by high prices of oil and natural gas.

Hardly anyone in the United States appears to be preoccupied with Mr. Putin’s power grab for what many experts believe may turn out to be two consecutive six-year terms, but that’s unfortunate given the poor economic prospects that are threatening the integrity of the European Union, the mightiest of U.S. allies.

Mr. Putin notoriously favors the use of fossil fuel export pricing in international politics and so may make the E.U. survival even more problematic.

Without the support of the European Union it would be much harder for the United States to counter the rise of China as a leading world power.

So the White House and the State Department would do well to give U.S.-Russian affairs a higher priority now that Mr. Putin is heading back to the presidency of Russia.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade. Contact him at: sigov@theblade.com, or 419-724-6089.



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