So much for the Obama administration’s famous “reset” button.
The latest evidence that the U.S.-Russian relationship can’t be mended with mere slogans is Vladimir Putin’s vitriolic attack on Hillary Clinton this week, in which the current prime minister and soon-to-be president essentially accused the Secretary of State of fomenting an internal revolution inside Russia by directing opposition protestors to rally against this weekend’s sham parliamentary election results. “She set the tone, gave the signal, and the signal was heard by certain activists,” an angry Putin charged. “They heard this signal and with the help of the State Department, they started active work.”
Clinton’s crime? Expressing doubts about the fairness of Russia’s elections this weekend and insisting that Russian voters “deserve a full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation.” As Clinton was quick to note, she was hardly alone in these concerns. No less than Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet premier and General Secretary of the Communist Party, has said that the election results were “a lie” and should be annulled.
There can be little doubt the election results were fraudulent. For starters, all but fringe or Kremlin affiliated parties were banned from participating. Meanwhile election monitors like Golos, Russia’s sole independent election watchdog, where subjected to a sustained campaign of harassment by security officials and state-run television organs. Despite that, and despite Putin’s evisceration of most independent media over the past decade, numerous reports surfaced of election fraud, with confirmed accounts of young people being ferried to different election stations to vote multiple times. Amateur videos captured election officials stuffing ballot boxes. Incredible voting tallies – including the 99.5 percent of the vote that Putin’s United Russia party received in places like Chechnya – all pointed toward a rigged result.
All of this has become the norm in Russian elections. What might explain Putin’s temper tantrum is that, despite being rigged, the elections still resulted in losses for Putin’s party, which won less than 50 percent of the vote – a significant drop from the 64 percent United Russia claimed as recently as 2007.
The most hopeful interpretation of that unexpected result is that another corruption-plagued election, combined with the prospect of Putin’s return as president for another 12 years, has proved too much for even the previously passive and politically fragmented Russian public. Thus, recent days have seen thousands of demonstrators turn out in the streets of Moscow and other major cities to protest the election result and to demand a “Russia without Putin.”
The official response has been typically severe. In Moscow, the government ordered some 52,000 police and paramilitary troops to crush the nascent protests. The government also launched a crackdown on activists and opposition leaders, most prominently the popular anti-corruption crusader and blogger Alexei Navalny. Navalny, whose description of United Russia as the party of “crooks and thieves” has become a rallying cry among the opposition, was among the hundreds of activists arrested this week.
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