With hundreds of military trucks, menacing police vans, hovering helicopters and tens of thousands of soldiers and riot police in full gear, Moscow felt like an occupied city last night.
And so it was. Manezh Square, in front of the Kremlin, and a good portion of Tverskaya, the city’s main shopping street, were taken by a crowd of some 100,000 grim-looking people dressed mostly in black, who were brought in to celebrate the victory of Vladimir Putin. Russia's outgoing prime minister officially won just less than 64% of the vote in yesterday's presidential election.
This was a very different crowd from the privileged middle-class Muscovites normally seen on Tverskaya, who largely voted against Mr Putin. Actors and singers tried to warm up the pro-Putin crowd, but few responded with enthusiasm. This was the Moscow Mr Putin addressed with his emotional speech.
“A special thank you to those who gathered today in Moscow, who supported us in every corner of our limitless motherland, to all those who said 'yes' to our great Russia.” By “Russia”, Mr Putin meant himself. A tear—later blamed on the cold wind—rolled down his face.
“We won! We won in an open and honest battle! Thank you friends, thank you!” said Mr Putin. This was the speech of a conqueror in a hostile capital. Moscow gave Mr Putin less than half of its votes. More than 20% went to Mikhail Prokhorov, a liberal business tycoon. There were no kind words in Mr Putin's victory speech for his opponents; no promise to be a president of all the people, including those who voted against him; no offer of a compromise—only of an unrelenting fight.
“We showed that nobody can force anything upon us!” Mr Putin said twice. “We showed that our people can differentiate between a wish for renewal from political provocations aimed at only one thing: to destroy Russian statehood and usurp power. Russian people today showed that such scenarios will not pass in our land,” Mr Putin said.
It is as if he were haunted by the spectre of a colour revolution of the sort that overtook Georgia and Ukraine almost a decade ago. Such a development is unlikely in Russia. But a separate mobilisation has already taken place.
In the run-up to the election Mr Putin had called on his supporters to unite for a last battle, against enemies both domestic and foreign. Mr Putin's "provocations" presumably meant the massive protest marches in Moscow that erupted after December's dodgy parliamentary elections, where huge crowds demanded “honest elections” and the end of Mr Putin’s personalised, corrupt system of governance.
The protests made a big impression on both the Kremlin and Russia's urban middle classes. They forced the Kremlin to launch political reform (albeit in half-hearted fashion), to simplify the rules governing the registration of election candidates and political parties, and to bring back the elections of regional governors, which were scrapped in 2004.
But they also mobilised hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. The numbers volunteering to act as voting observers at yesterday's election was four times greater than in December's election. That made the Kremlin’s manipulation job that much harder.
Many of the protests’ organisers, and some journalists, convened last night in a smoke-filled small theatre hall in Moscow, which turned into the makeshift headquarters of an alternative vote count. It was set up by Alexei Navalny, an influential blogger and anti-corruption crusader with an eye for big politics.
Throughout the night the centre broadcast news and commentary about the election on to the internet from its makeshift television studio. Guests, including influential columnists, opposition politicians and even celebrities—such as Ksenia Sobchak, former host of the Russian equivalent of “Big Brother”—told stories of electoral fraud.
Mr Navalny says the methods of manipulation yesterday differed from December's elections. Back then the electoral commission simply kicked out election observers and falsified the count, particularly in Moscow, which voted overwhelmingly against the Kremlin’s United Russia party. It was the blatancy of these acts that enraged Muscovites and drove them on to the streets.
This time, Mr Navalny says, the Kremlin used more labour-intensive methods. Although the counting itself was more transparent, the numbers of people voting for Mr Putin in the first place was artificially increased. Voters were delivered to polling stations by special buses. Electoral registers were supplemented by additional lists of people from state organisations, both fake and genuine, allowing for multiple voting.
According to Golos, an election-observing organisation, Mr Putin’s real result was just over 50% (the threshold needed to avoid a second-round run-off), followed by Gennady Zyuganov, a veteran Communist leader, with 19%, and Mr Prokhorov overtaking two other candidates in the official result with nearly 17%. But the numbers are falling, and could dip below the 50% threshold.
Yet pumping up the numbers of Putin voters was not so much a means of securing victory in the first round but a demonstration to the bureaucracy and particularly to the security services that Mr Putin is still in charge and able to mobilise whatever resources necessary to stay in power.
The problem for Mr Putin, writes Alexander Baunov, a Russian columnist, is that his legitimacy is not recognised by a large and active minority of Russian people, and by a majority in the capital itself.
The Kremlin can pump up Mr Putin’s ratings and mobilise millions of state employees on election day. But it cannot provide that legitimacy. Many of those who voted for Mr Putin yesterday do not trust him. Sociologists say Mr Putin’s majority is passive, and crumbling.
In a conciliatory but also pre-emptive gesture to the protestors, this morning Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s outgoing president, asked the country’s prosecutor-general to review the conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed tycoon, by April 1st. Given Mr Putin’s tough position and Mr Medvedev’s weakness, the review is unlikely to result in Mr Khodorkovsky’s release and is more likely to be a smokescreen.
The main dishonesty, however, was that the rules of yesterday's election were skewed from the very beginning. The Kremlin had monopoly over election coverage on television, which remains the main source of news for much of the country (although no longer in Moscow), and disqualified any plausible opponents from the outset, creating an impression that there was no alternative. This was supplemented with scaremongering about the threat of a revolution.
The danger is that the Kremlin may now feel the need to justify its mobilisation. And it may find an excuse. A mass demonstration is planned this evening in the centre of Moscow, and although the mayor’s office has granted permission for it to go ahead the dangers of a provocation remain from either side: some protestors may want to go beyond the prescribed march limits and take their protest towards the Kremlin.
Alarmingly, Mr Putin had pre-emptively accused protestors of spoiling for a fight, and might even “knock someone off” so that they can blame the Kremlin. But for the thousands of Muscovites who will take to the streets this evening, the main point is to demonstrate that this city belongs to them.