Crunch Election for Putin: A Divided Russia Goes to the Polls

By Walter Mayr, Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp

Vladimir Putin plans to win a third term as Russian president in Sunday's election. But he has been weakened by the anti-government protests that have broken out in recent months, and many Russians believe he lacks a vision for the country. Is Russia on the brink of radical change?

Photo Gallery: Putin Under Pressure Photos
AFP

This is part one of SPIEGEL's story on the upcoming Russian presidential election. Part twocan be found here.


The man who wants to send Vladimir Putin into retirement enjoys changing roles. Sometimes he is Boris Akunin, Russia's top-selling author of crime fiction. When he wants to write from a woman's perspective, he calls himself Anna Borisova. Finally, when he wants to be perceived as a nationalist, he uses the pen name Anatoly Brusnikin.

Akunin has been the leader of the Russian opposition for several weeks now. But this no longer has anything to do with fiction. In fact, he takes his new role in politics very seriously indeed. And it's a role that could change Russia.

Akunin has been one of the main speakers at the Moscow demonstrations against fraud in Russia's recent parliamentary elections. And among the hundreds of thousands who have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for weeks now, no one is more popular than Akunin.

This Sunday, Akunin and his fellow Russians will go to the polls once again, but this time they will be voting for the much more important office of the president. Putin has set the course for his return to the Kremlin, where he intends to assume the presidency for the third time.

'He Should Hand Over the Reins'

But now the unthinkable has happened: A portion of the population, including Akunin, is no longer playing along. Akunin is now an ordinary citizen, Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, his real name. But everyone still calls him Akunin.

"Putin has lost his country," says Akunin. "I don't wish upon him the fate of (former Libyan dictator) Moammar Gadhafi, but he should hand over the reins to a successor. As an historian, I know that authoritarian systems fail when the divide between the rulers and the ruled becomes too large."

The classics of world literature are lined up on the bookshelf in Akunin's study, and the large windows of his country house offer a sweeping view of the snow-covered fir trees in the garden. It is a quiet place, but the silence seems almost unreal, given what is happening only 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the east in Moscow, and in the rest of the country.

The world out there has been turned upside down, with tens of thousands taking part in protests against Putin, who is sometimes referred to by his nickname, Vova. "Vova, you're fired" and "Russia -- that's us," the Kremlin opponents chant. Debates over a change of government are raging on the Internet. The Kremlin, determined to secure victory for the premier on Sunday in the first round of voting, mobilized 130,000 supporters last week.

Awakening from a Sleep

Has the spirit of the Arab rebellion reached Russia? Only three months ago, it seemed all but guaranteed that the 59-year-old Putin, who has served as either president or prime minister for the last 12 years, would move into the Kremlin for another 12 years. But now the end of an era is suddenly in sight.

It's almost as if the giant country was awakening from a deep sleep, the walls around the Kremlin were crumbling and the taboos of the Putin era were being shattered. Liberals, nationalists and communists are united in their hatred for the eternal Kremlin leader. There is talk of new elections, a coalition government and the release of political prisoners.

"If Putin doesn't come around and change things, it will end in the public squares of the cities," warns former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who is also running for president, says: "What is happening in Russia is a catastrophe."

When Putin announced his planned return to the Kremlin last fall, Akunin and his wife thought of emigrating. "We had lost hope that people would wake up from their apathy. No one expected this upheaval."

Fear of Turmoil

But now it is becoming clear that a rift runs through Russian society. The country is divided. On the one side are those who support Putin because they fear a new period of turmoil, like in the 1990s after Gorbachev's resignation, or in 1917, after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. On the other are those who are now marching through Moscow's streets, shouting: "We are not the opposition, we are your employers. Putin, get out!" Neither of the two camps is pulling any punches.

Moscow is the "last bulwark against a new global empire of evil," pro-Kremlin speakers tell their audiences, as they accuse the Americans of trying to subjugate Russia after supposedly having done the same to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The protesters, they say, are Washington's henchmen.

The respected film director Stanislav Govorukhin, Putin's campaign manager, compares current events to the days of the czars in terms of their dramatic impact: "They assassinated reformist Prime Minister (Pyotr) Stolypin in 1911, just as Russia was on the verge of becoming a leading industrial power." A similar scenario is repeating itself today, he claims.

There it is again, the fear of revolution and civil war, deliberately stoked by the Kremlin. At a recent rally, the editor-in-chief of the nationalist newspaper Zavtra likened the color of the Orange Revolution, which swept away the authoritarian regime in Ukraine seven years ago in the aftermath of a rigged election, to "the color of dog piss in the snow." If Putin were toppled and the protesters moved into the Kremlin, he added, the country could face a struggle pitting everyone against everyone, and orange would turn into the "red of blood."

"Putin is worse than Hitler," the liberals say in response. Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and nationalist, has said that he will "bite through the throats" of the people at the Kremlin.

Losing Control

Why is such a political virtuoso as Putin suddenly losing control of the country? What mistakes has he made? Is he serious about the promises he is now making on a daily basis, and will he emerge from the election as a reformer? Or is what Akunin says true, namely, that Putin "still doesn't understand what's going on"?

Assuming he does manage to get reelected on March 4, how legitimate is this election, and what fate can Russia expect: revolution or restoration? And how much support does Putin still have in the provinces? In December, voters also rebuffed the Kremlin in cities like Yekaterinburg, Yaroslavl, Orenburg and Volgograd.

In recent weeks, SPIEGEL journalists have been traveling around this enormous country in an effort to discover why the world of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is coming apart at the seams. They visited such far-flung places as the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, the Black Sea region surrounding Krasnodar, the Siberian capital Novosibirsk and the rural hinterlands of the Republic of Mordovia.

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