In Russia, an Election Victory for Putin and Then a 'Paid Flash Mob'

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Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Supporters of Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin rally at Manezh Square outside the Kremlin in Moscow on Sunday, March 4, 2012

Vladimir Putin did not need to cheat in the Russian presidential elections on Sunday, March 4. Opinion polls going into the ballot had suggested the Prime Minister would win another six-year term as President in a landslide with about two-thirds of the vote. And after the blatant fraud that went on during December's parliamentary election, the opposition had mobilized across the country hundreds of thousands of observers whose ability to sniff out cheats and recite Russian electoral law could be compared to a drug-sniffing dog with a photographic memory. But it didn't seem to matter. The gears of Russia's rigging machine, greased with years of experience, continued to turn throughout the day.

"The system is on autopilot," remarked Alexander Romanovich, an opposition member of the Russian parliament who started the day looking for voter fraud in the Moscow suburb of Odintsovo. "They can't stop it even if they wanted to." At the third polling station he visited, officials had handed out all of their absentee ballots before the elections — this seemed to be the favored mechanism of fraud throughout the day — and were allowing people to vote without proper documents. Romanovich blew a gasket. Flashing his parliamentary ID, he laced into the deputy head of the polling station. "You're going down for this," he said.

On election day in December, says Romanovich, a retired colonel in the special forces, he caught an official forging the final count at her polling station. "I busted into the room," he tells TIME on Sunday while driving around to polling stations in his Mercedes. "And I said to her, 'You're going to prison for this, you understand that?' So the woman just passes out. Just faints dead away." This story seemed to give him enormous pleasure, but it didn't make much difference in the final result — Putin's United Russia Party still won a majority in the parliamentary vote. And even though observers presented evidence that the party won closer to 35% of the vote, Russian courts rejected nearly all of it.

The picture was not much different on Sunday, at least in terms of people's expectations. The opposition movement, led by blogger Alexei Navalny, had set up a base of operations at a dive bar in central Moscow called Masterskaya, or "Workshop," where Russian intellectuals sipped espresso and lamented the state of the nation. Throughout the day, reports flowed in from their network of observers about ballot-box stuffing, illegal absentee voting and that famous Russian innovation, the carousel, in which people are bused around to cast multiple votes. Navalny took it all as a matter of course. "The methods are fairly primitive and easy for observers to spot," he says. "Nevertheless, in Moscow, the Moscow region, in St. Petersburg, where there are lots of observers and the rigging is bound to be exposed, it's still going on."

Minutes later, a call came in from a group of journalists and activists at a McDonald's in southern Moscow who claimed they had nabbed a man in the act of buying votes for Putin for 1,000 rubles (about $30) apiece. When TIME arrived, police had detained the man, whom they identified as an 18-year-old sociology student at Moscow State University, and were questioning him and a group of witnesses. (As of Sunday night, the man was still in custody.) "The evidence is serious. I've never seen anything like it before," says Vladimir Mikulin, deputy head of the police station. But Ilya Ponomaryov, a parliamentary deputy who later arrived on the scene, seems less surprised. "In the Moscow region alone, I've already gotten reports of three to four dozen cases like this. Unfortunately, it's happening all over Russia," he says. "It's all exactly the same as before. They can't seem to help themselves."

That was the bizarre thing about Sunday's election. Unlike his United Russia Party, Putin still enjoys broad support, especially in Russia's industrial heartland, where his campaign slogans for stability appeal to a deeply change-wary and conservative electorate. His ratings have fallen to historic lows in Russia's biggest cities, and in Moscow on Sunday, Putin failed to get a majority of the vote for the first time in his career. But nationwide, official results showed him winning 64% of the vote, far ahead of the second-place candidate, the Communist Party's Gennadi Zyuganov, at just 17%.

Not even Putin's most stalwart opponents had doubted that he could win a fair election, especially considering the almost total lack of competition on the ballot. So why the voting irregularities? "In chess, they call it zugzwang," explains Vladimir Tor, a leader of the ultranationalist movement who was hanging around Navalny's smoke-filled headquarters on Sunday. "It is a situation where any move will only make your situation worse, but you still have to make a move." The player's instinct, Tor adds, is not to get creative but to make the first move that comes to mind.

That's what the government seemed to do. In a statement on Monday, European observers said the vote was "clearly skewed" in Putin's favor. "There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt," said Tonino Picula, head of the delegation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. By Sunday morning, hundreds of military and police trucks were lining Moscow's central streets in anticipation of protests, making the city feel as if it was under siege.

The embankment behind the Kremlin was packed with buses full of people from the provinces, and at around 8 p.m., they began to spill out, heading toward the square at the walls of the Kremlin for a rally in support of Putin. Such rallies are often engineered to create images of support for the government, usually using pro-Kremlin youth activists bused in from outside Moscow. But this was by far the biggest in Russia's modern history. More than 100,000 people crammed into the square, carrying banners with Putin's face and filling the air with the sound of their chanting and the smell of alcohol. Most of the two dozen people who agreed to speak said they had willingly voted for Putin. Asked why, the most common response by far was, "Who else?"

When Putin finally took the stage to greet them, there were tears running down his face. "We have won in an open and fair fight," Putin told the crowd. It was the first time the Russian leader, better known for his macho bluster and action-hero stunts, had ever cried in public. (His spokesman Dmitri Peskov insisted that it was the wind that had made his eyes water.) Putin continued, "This was a test for all of our people. It was a test of our political maturity, our self-reliance, our independence." Sniffling, he added, "I promised you we would win, and we won! Glory to Russia!" When he was finished, bands began to play and the people dispersed, some heading to the metro to receive payment for attending. Near the platform inside one station, about 100 people, mostly pensioners and college students, stood in line to receive 300 rubles each (about $10) for helping to fill the square.

Many of them eventually got angry. They had been forced to wait for their money, and they eagerly gave interviews about the scam they were involved in, allowing a reporter to videotape them. "This is our cheap, low-down, nasty democracy," said Marina, 44, who is unemployed and didn't want to give her last name. "Putin buys people like us. He pays for it all, and we vote to show that we love him. For that we get 300 rubles." The young man who was paying them declined to give his name, but he did not deny that the payments were in exchange for attending the "concert" at the Kremlin walls. "It's a paid flash mob. What? It's normal," he said. In Russia's political culture, perhaps he's right. Even if old habits make no apparent sense, that doesn't mean they won't die hard.