Officials struck back this week, going after the country’s only independent election monitoring organization, Golos, which has been operating an online map tracking campaign violations across the country. A court found it guilty Friday night of violating a law forbidding publication of public-opinion reports close to an election and imposed a fine equivalent to about $1,000. Early Saturday, Golos leader Lilya Shibanova was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for 12 hours and was allowed to go only after giving her laptop to security officers, the group said.
“Golos has become a most important and respected monitor,” said Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and influential blogger. “The authorities were afraid people would learn the truth about how elections are manipulated.”
But the public mood had already changed, and it was reverberating through the blogosphere. Reports of the attack on Golos were quickly met with a rap song ridiculing the tactics, lighting up the online world. The chatter turned to voting against the dominant United Russia party rather than ignoring the elections as useless.
“An accumulation of incremental events has turned into an enormous wave of negative emotion,” said Mark Urnov, dean of political studies at the Higher School of Economics, and the authorities don’t understand how to adapt. “That is why they reacted so badly to Golos and made a mistake.”
The Kremlin began losing its footing, Kozyrev said, in mid-September. To offer the appearance of choice, Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, had been persuaded to take over the leadership of the moribund Right Cause party. He quickly became too independent, and the authorities made a messy job of throwing him out.
Although it was clear the party would not offer real opposition — the Kremlin prohibits that — Prokhorov was popular with businessmen, and he gave them some room to maneuver politically. His ouster ended up alienating a constituency loyal to the power structure, Kozyrev said.
Then, just over a week later, President Dmitry Medvedev told a cheering United Russia congress that he would step aside for Putin to run in the March presidential election. “The middle class reacted quite strongly after that,” Urnov said. “They thought Medvedev could be a leader representing their hopes. Now his popularity is annihilated.”
Putin’s popularity began to drop, as did United Russia’s. Although polls predict that the party will win 53 percent of the vote Sunday, numbers short of the 64.3 percent it received in 2007 are viewed as unacceptably weak.