Putin faces new battle for Moscow's support

AFP , Thursday 8 Mar 2012

Supported by less than half in the capital Moscow, President Vladimir Putin is challenged despite nationwide election victory

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits the election monitoring center in Moscow, Tuesday, (Photo: AP).

In the run-up to the presidential elections Vladimir Putin compared the campaign to Russia's 1812 battle for Moscow against Napoleon, quoting from a classic poem to ask people to support him.

But the 2012 battle for Moscow appears to have been lost by Putin's team, with the Kremlin now sitting in a city where the majority of people voted against him in Sunday's presidential vote.

Official polling figures in Moscow said that Putin was supported by less than 47 percent of the 4.3 million people who voted in the Russian capital Sunday.

A tally taken down by independent monitors in Moscow and sent in from polling stations to the observers group Golos -- which alleged mass violations -- gives an even lower figure of 45 percent for Putin.

By contrast, Putin won 63.6 percent nationwide according to official figures, with his weakness in Moscow compensated by strong support in central Russia and credibility-busting ratings well into the nineties in the Caucasus.

The 16-point difference between support for Putin nationwide and in Moscow is a "rift that will not go away," said Maria Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

"It will get deeper and deeper and will be a problem for the legitimacy of Putin's authority."

The capital -- home to eight percent of the country's population -- also has the greatest concentration of Russia's fast expanding middle class who have embraced the Internet and been at the forefront of the anti-Putin protest movement.

Speaking to supporters packed into Moscow's largest stadium two weeks ago, Putin sought inspiration from a work by romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov which chronicles Russia's defence of Moscow from French "infidels".

"How can we not think back to Lermontov and his heroes... who pledged allegiance to the Motherland before the battle for Moscow and dreamed of dying for it?" Putin asked.

But Putin's performance in the capital was startlingly weak given the state resources he enjoys. Tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov came in second with a substantial 20.45 percent.

There were numerous reports of dirty tricks on election day, such as more than 100 buses bringing Putin's youth supporters from other regions to vote in Moscow with absentee ballots.

The clear effort to bring loyal voters to the capital shows the authorities' worry that in Moscow "casting of critical votes needs to be diluted for an acceptable result," said Lipman.

After Putin tearfully thanked Russian citizens in Moscow Sunday evening, residents of the capital made the name of a Soviet-era Oscar winning film "Moscow Does not Believe in Tears" into a new protest slogan.

"I don't know how the newly elected president, whom many do not consider a lawful president, will behave," said detective novelist Boris Akunin, who has become one of the top activists speaking for the protest movement.

"How he is going to live and work in his capital, which regards him with hostility, where even with all the (fraud) it turns out that the majority of this city are opposed to him?"

"Putin is not a hero for Moscow," wrote the editor of Russia's leading business daily Vedomosti, Tatyana Lysova.

She said that mayor Sergei Sobyanin's congratulatory message to Putin after the election was inappropriately addressed from all Muscovites.

"Moscow does not need anything from him," she wrote.

The capital looked like a city under siege during the polls and days after as interior troops and riot police were brought to Moscow in the thousands.

"Any flirting with the opposition will definitely be over, and now there will be a tightening of the screws to some extent," said Moscow resident Anton Eremenko, 32, who worked as a monitor in the polls.

"Maybe not repressions, but a hard line will be taken."

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