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In Russia's Race For President, Can Anyone Exploit Putin’s Weakness?

Analysis: In the aftermath of his party's poor showing in parliamentary elections, Vladimir Putin is focused now on his race to return to the Russian presidency. Though he is still strongly positioned, Putin now faces a new dynamic where he can &

Communist party candidate Gennady Zyuganov (Mika Stetsovski)
Communist party candidate Gennady Zyuganov (Mika Stetsovski)
Maksim Ivanov

MOSCOW - The recent parliamentary elections in Russia were a major embarrassment for Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia. They have galvanized a protest movement throughout the typically acquiescent populace. But will the changes translate at the polls in next year's presidential election?

The recent parliamentary results can be attributed to several things: Putin's declining popularity, a lackluster campaign from United Russia, and a reasonable campaign on the part of at least one major opposition group.

United Russia "didn't make many mistakes in terms of commercial spots," choosing the high road, asking for votes from all those who believed in "stability and a bright future," according to Igor Mintusov, from the consulting firm Nikolo M. But that same advertising campaign was short on originality and ideas, just "the sight of the same old faces, over and over again."

The only exceptions, according to Mintusov, were a few ads featuring "simple soldiers' telling the audience what United Russia had done for them. According to political scientist Sergei Polyakov, when voters are constantly bombarded with information about United Russia, a few extra commercials is not bound to inspire. More generally, experts say people no longer believe United Russia's slogan "Only Forward."

United Russia has it's base: state employees and the elderly, who were able to climb out of crushing poverty thanks to Putin's policies, but who are still very dependent on the government, and who are willing to tolerate a relatively low standard of living and high levels of corruption and bureaucracy, according to Leonty Byuizov, a researcher at the RAN Sociology Institute in Moscow.

Byuizov estimates the party's support at 35% to 40% of the electorate, but said it is confined solely to "those who are connected to the party by economic interests."

The opposition parties were successful in the parliamentary election as much thanks to United Russia's declining popularity as to the opposition's successful campaigning. "It was like a big auction of protest votes, which were then divided up between the four parties," says Polyakov.

Of those four parties, the most effective was Just Russia. It's success "was obvious even two weeks before the elections," says Byuizo, who cited it as the only party with fresh faces.

Alekcei Makarkin, vice president of the Politechnical Center, says that Just Russia was "able to attract liberal voters, who did not have their own usual parties," and its slogan "against cheats and thieves' caught on across the electorate.

The Communist party kept its reputation as the most vocal segment of the opposition. Their base electorate is about 8-9% of voters, often those people who think that Yeltsin and Putin are one and the same, or as Byuizov puts it, "convinced old grumblers."

New elections, new conditions

Now attention turns to the March presidential elections, where the opposition parties are mostly going to be competing among themselves. For example, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist candidate, will be fighting to keep his status as the "opposition leader," according to Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Saint Petersburg Politics fund. "It doesn't bother him to come in second to Putin."

But now there is another candidate for "opposition leader." During the parliamentary elections, invalid ballots, as well as votes for parties that didn't get enough votes to be represented, are divided among the winning parties. But in the presidential elections, those votes won't go to anyone, meaning that opposition parties could suffer from the "fed up with everyone" vote. That should prevent Putin from reaching the 50 percent threshold to win outright in the first round. But it also means that alternative candidates, like Mikhail Prokhorov, have to really personify protest.

The fact that people have become more "activist" has become a problem for Vladimir Putin. "How do you run a campaign when you can be booed at any moment? Will he only appear on television?" asks political scientist Dimitry Oreshkin. We didn't see a Putin 2.0 on December 15, says Oreshkin, which means he does not have anything left to offer citizens.

In Oreshkin's view, that means that Putin's reputation has only one direction to go: down.

Read the original article in Russian

Photo - Mika Stetsovski

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Wagner's MIA Convicts: Where Do Deserting Russian Mercenaries Go?

Tens of thousands of Russian prisoners who've been recruited by the Wagner Group mercenary outfit have escaped from the frontlines after volunteering in exchange for freedom. Some appear to be seeking political asylum in Europe thanks to a "cleared" criminal record.

Picture of a soldier wearing the Wagner Group Logo on their uniform.

Soldier wearing the paramilitary Wagner Group Logo on their uniform.

Source: Sky over Ukraine via Facebook
Anna Akage

Of the about 50,000 Russian convicts who signed up to fight in Ukraine with the Wagner Group, just 10,000 are reportedly still at the front. An unknown number have been killed in action — but among those would-be casualties are also a certain number of coffins that are actually empty.

To hide the number of soldiers who have deserted or defected to Ukraine, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is reportedly adding them to the lists of the dead and missing.

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Some Wagner fighters have surrendered through the Ukrainian government's "I Want To Live" hotline, says Olga Romanova, director and founder of the Russia Behind Bars foundation.

"Relatives of the convicts enlisted in the Wagner Group are not allowed to open the coffins," explains Romanova.

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