x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Did Kremlin tricks help Vladimir Putin win election?

Vladimir Putin's victory seems assured despite weeks of opposition rallies that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets.

MOSCOW // Victory for Vladimir Putin in today's presidential election is a foregone conclusion, but opposition figures and analysts say a Kremlin campaign of tricks may have helped rebuild his popularity.

When opposition protests erupted in early December, Putin's re-election looked less certain. His ratings plummeted, and, in mid-December, state-run pollster VTsIOM gave him just 42 per cent of the vote.

Now his victory seems assured despite weeks of opposition rallies that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets.

Mr Putin, now the prime minister, could sweep the election with up to 66 per cent of the vote, according to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center.

The poll also shows that only about one-third of Russians generally support the protest movement. Most of supporters of the opposition are in urban areas with large numbers of educated middle-class Russians.

The recent months of campaigning have seen Mr Putin's camp countering the growing opposition movement with rival demonstrations and a messy media war.

Experts say the Kremlin has been desperate to score a propaganda coup after a drop in public trust for both Mr Putin and the ruling United Russia party, which barely secured a majority in December's parliamentary elections. That election was marred by allegations of vote rigging.

A key part of the Kremlin's plan has been organising pro-Putin rallies. The most recent demonstration, on February 23, attracted upwards of 100,000 people - many of whom were bussed in from the regions.

The rallies have been one part of a Kremlin plan to downplay the opposition protests, said Masha Lipman, an expert at Moscow's Carnegie Center.

"I would actually see it as part of a broader response to a new phenomenon, such as tens of thousands of people in Moscow chanting 'Putin out!'" she said. "I think there is a whole range of different, mostly manipulative, propaganda steps aimed at reducing the importance and countering the effect of these rallies."

The Kremlin has taken its fight to the internet. In mid December, the pro-Kremlin website Life News published a series of leaked phone conversations, in which opposition leader Boris Nemtsov viciously debased his fellow activists. Mr Nemtsov and others alleged Russia's security service was ordered by the Kremlin to tap his phone and leak the conversations.

The murky cyber sparring continued when the Russian wing of Anonymous, the internet whistle-blowing group, hacked the email accounts of key figures in Russia's pro-Kremlin youth movement, Nashi.

Email conversations featuring the group's press secretary, Kristina Potuphick, uncovered the widespread practice of paying internet users to post comments on blogs in support of Mr Putin.

They also detailed various schemes to discredit anti-corruption blogger and opposition darling Alexei Navalny.

Observers note that while the trend is not new, the Kremlin has stepped up its actions to counter the threat of a protest movement that has thrived online.

"The authorities have tried to use every opportunity offered by the internet to broadcast their own point of view," said the well-known blogger and media critic Oleg Kozyrev.

He contends that the Kremlin has used illegal and semi-legal tactics such as "denial of service" attacks, email hacking and spam.

He said that the amount of "dirt" heaped on the opposition has made many anti-government Russians wary of standing behind particular opposition leaders.

"In general, the people who have come out to the mass street protests came not for one leader or another, but for the cause itself," Mr Kozyrev said.

Whether such tactics have been instrumental in turning the tide back in Mr Putin's favour is difficult to say, experts say.

They point to the fine print in the Levada poll. It found that 66 per cent of decided voters will vote for Mr Putin.

But Ben Judah, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, notes that the prime minister's level of electoral support is lower than it seems: at about 45 per cent of the total vote, it falls short of the 50 per cent required for a first-round victory.

"It's clear from the Levada poll that they haven't persuaded a majority of Russian citizens to go out and vote for Putin on election day," he said. "At first glance, the poll seems like a sign of strength, but actually it's a sign of weakness if you dig into it."

Signs that the Kremlin is still unsure of Mr. Putin's easy victory emerged on Monday when Russian state television reported that Russian and Ukrainian security services foiled an assassination plot against Mr. Putin. Critics claim it was a PR stunt engineered in a hurried attempt to secure a first-round win. The authorities are counting on a mix of falsification and propaganda to usher Putin back to the presidency, according to analyst and former Kremlin insider Stanislav Belkovsky.

"Putin's real rating is about 38 per cent now, but the result they are going to proclaim in the first round will be 58 per cent, so they need 20 per cent more than they can expect," he said. "That's why they're trying to invent anything and everything to improve the result."