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December 12, 2011

Protests in Russia Lead to Challenge for Putin in Presidential Elections

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Protests in Russia over the weekend, after a rigged Parliamentary election that still saw Vladimir Putin’s party lose ground, has led to an additional challenge for Putin in next year’s Presidential race.

Tens of thousands of Russians protested in Moscow and elsewhere over the weekend, the largest such demonstrations in 20 years, shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” among other slogans. The demonstration was so large that even Russian state TV reported on the news, an unusual occurrence for the buttoned-down news. This capped off a week of protests since the parliamentary election results, which international monitors said showed signs of ballot-stuffing. Even with the vote-rigging, Putin’s party, United Russia, was unable to secure a majority in the Parliament, settling for a plurality.

But Putin’s announcement that he would again seek the Presidency was as much a spark for the protests as the election irregularities. Dissident elements in the country have grown tired of one-party rule, with Putin and current President Dmitry Medvedev scheduled to switch places next year. Medvedev ordered an investigation into the election results with a post on Facebook, of all places, and within six hours the post drew thousands of mostly negative comments. The fact that Medvedev was on the apparently rigged ballot doesn’t inspire confidence in the investigation.

The near-term ramifications for this open dissent is that it offers an opportunity to potentially challenge Putin in the elections, and one Russian billionaire will take up that effort.

Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia’s richest tycoons and the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, said Monday he will run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the March presidential election.

Prokhorov has been cautious not to cross Putin’s path in the past, but the billionaire may pose a serious challenge to Putin, whose authority has been dented by alleged widespread fraud during Russia’s Dec. 4 parliamentary election.

Putin’s party only won about 50 percent of that vote, compared to 64 percent four years ago, and the fraud allegations have allowed opposition parties to successfully mount massive anti-Putin protests in Russia [...]

“The society is waking up,” Prokhorov said at his news conference in Moscow.

Prokhorov tried to form a political party for the parliamentary elections, but then abandoned the idea because of pressure from Kremlin insiders. With Russia being generally a plutocracy, I’m not surprised that the great hope to unseat Putin comes from a billionaire.

Given that the last election featured widespread vote fraud, I don’t know how significant the development of a challenger for the Presidential election can be. But Putin definitely feels the heat now, as a substantial portion of society is waking up and dissenting from a virtual dictatorship. A familiar sign at the protests shows a picture of an aging Putin with the date “2050,” and the single word “Het,” meaning or “no.” That has been a familiar reaction around the world to dictators and world leaders in this year of uprising.

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