Here’s a joke my Russian landlord told me: “Mr. Putin, we have some bad news. Your opponent has 75% of the votes! The good news? You got 76%!” Badum tish. 

In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s shirtless, horseback-riding prime minister schtick isn’t so funny. Tomorrow, it’s all but certain he’ll be elected president for a third time — officially commemorating the longest political reign in Russia since Josef Stalin.

 

Wait, isn’t Putin the president of Russia?

Uh, no. Uh, yes. No. Vladimir Putin has previously served two consecutive presidential terms, after which came Dmitry Medvedev, the current president (a.k.a. “Putin’s place-holder” and “puppet prez”). Medvedev nominated Putin for Prime Minister, which he is, just for a wee bit more. In September, Medvedev caused jaws to drop when he announced he wasn’t seeking re-election. Putin said he was. Now, I could list their political and financial ties, or I could show you these bromantic photos of them skiing together. Elected, Putin will serve 12 years as president.

 

So, he’s a bad guy, right?

The “ex-KGB” thing doesn’t automatically instill quite the same kind of fear-tingle in Russians as it does in bred-to-Red-hatin’ Americans, because, you know, it happens. Like any president, Putin’s got some notches into his “reform” belt. Meanwhile, he exerted an absurdist degree control over the country’s society and business. And then, there’re those horrible, dangerous little bits, mentioning which causes my Russian genes to cringe, nervously.

There’s the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Kremlin critic, suspiciously prosecuted and jailed in an ex-gulag-town since 2005 for “theft” of oil. There’s the yet-unsolved murder case of journalist and crusader against the savage corruption of Russia’s Chechen War, Anna Politkovskaya. Actually, there’s a longer, scarier list of alleged “Putin Murders,” but, um, so, wow, I’m just going to leave this right here.

 

Why do people like him then? I remember something about… boobs?

There’s something to be said for the young’uns in the Cult o’ Putin. The “lose your virginity” to Putin campaign ads for the ladies. Shirts being ripped open in ads for the mens. The pin-up calendars. The pro-Putin youth nationalist movement’s sleep-away camps with their effigies of journalists “liars, falsifiers” topped with Wehrmacht caps. The moistness factor of his appeal appears very much dependent on images of his exuberant, meme-y, faux machoness gushing forth from the Putin-controlled media sources. And other sexy distractions. There’re other, variously aged Putin-lovers – and pretend Putin-lovers — but many will vote for him just because… because, who else?


Yeah, who else?

Aside from Putin’s United Russia party, the “opposition” is split among “the Communists, the left-leaning Just Cause Party, and the nationalist L.D.P.R.,” with a spotting of other factions. This not a two-party system. There were “good guys” on the political scape, but really, while the opposition is active and energetic in the capital and major cities, for most of the populace exhaustion and cynicism prevail.

 

What about all those protests?

After the Parliamentary Elections late last year, thousands of  fraud-decrying protesters took to the streets in response to documented cases of election shenanigans.

Before that, there were the monthly Strategy-31 “unsanctioned” protest marches — public assemblies in support of Russians’ Constitutional right to public assembly, ironically resulting in police beatings and arrests. With up to 50,000 marching at once in Moscow for “fair elections” and political reform, this is different than other public actions: Bigger. Unprecedented. Repeated. Ongoing. With many more beatings by the police and their hired soccer goons. With “you’ve been fucked!” banners.

These things happen when stories of voters being paid $200 to ride in vans from district to district to vote 170 times float up.

 

Why bother voting then?

Even though Putin’s a shoe-in for prez, the protests have shaken up the political scene in a bit of the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” moment. Are they inconsequential to the election’s result? Putin promised a billion dollar anti-fraud surveillance system that’s more likely to break the Internet than directly affect his election. Ultimately, Putin will win anyway, but what might be different is the percentage of his votes and the percentage of his votes that are authentic. Even that is up to Putin. If Putin decides to loosen his grip and to at least give the election some sort of resemblance to a democratic process, it’s already some sort of a win.

 

Why so optimistic?

Putin’s nervous. You can tell by his blaming of opposition for “messing” with the ballots, blaming the protests on foreign spies and cartoon villains. In a recent speech, he speculated that his opposition will “whack” one of their own to make him look bad. Cryptic, nah?


So, what now?

Whatever happens tomorrow, one thing’s certain: on Monday night, there will be protests. During a protest last week, attempts were made to hand out tents, viciously thwarted by the authorities fearing a Ukraine-style Orange revolution in Russia. The Interior Ministry has already stationed 6,000 police reinforcements in Moscow. When asked about a planned crackdown, Putin quipped, “Why do I need to do that?” 

 


(Lead photo: Jussi Mononen/Flickr, footer photo: Ilya Varlamov/LiveJournal)