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Putin's Victory is Not Without Casualties

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Following his victory in Sunday's presidential election Vladimir Putin gave a tearful, patriotic speech to supporters in central Moscow befitting the characterisation of his election campaign as a battle. Having won another six years to enact 'plan Putina', however, his challenge may now be drawing back many of those he has sought to isolate.

From his well respected former finance minister Alexei Kudrin to celebrities like Kseniya Sobchak, many previously loyal figures have deserted his cause during a particularly bitter campaign cycle. Yet what it demonstrated more than anything was a system struggling at once to be seen to embrace calls for change and punish dissent.

Amidst his celebratory proclamations of "glory to Russia" in front of the massed crowd at Manezhnaya Square, there was a pointed warning to the opposition:

"We showed that no one can direct us in anything! We were able to save ourselves from political provocations, which have one goal: to destroy Russian sovereignty and usurp power."

Those who have followed the protest movement from its small scale beginnings on 5 December, the day after disputed Duma elections, to the 100,000-strong demonstration that marched to Bolotnaya Square on 4 February would struggle to reconcile the rhetoric with the reality. Notable as much for their peaceful nature - thanks in no small part to a change in tactics by Moscow's police forces following mass arrests at earlier protests - as their size the protesters counted communists, nationalists, liberals, hipsters, leftists and the odd oligarch among their ranks.

The stated goal was to unite in a call for fair elections and to repeat that call until they were heard. Unfortunately by the time it reached the Kremlin that message appears to have been lost.

While the margin of victory will undoubtedly continue to be the subject of dispute, the result of Sunday's election was seldom in doubt even in the weeks leading up to the vote. Nevertheless the full weight of the administration's electoral machine was thrown not at opposition candidates but at the nascent protest movement.

During his annual television call-in in December, Putin had taken a rather dismissive approach labelling them a "developed scheme to destabilise society", but claiming to have mistaken the white ribbons worn by protesters for condoms. By the time he arrived at Luzhniki Stadium for a rally in support of his candidacy last month, however, his tone had shifted.

Gone were the quips, replaced instead with attacks on foreign powers attempting to "dictate their will to us" and calls for the Russian people "not to run to the other side and not to deceive your motherland". His message of outside interference was all the more barbed as the event was held on Defenders of the Fatherland day, a holiday to celebrate those serving or having served in the Russian Armed Forces.

Labelling the opposition as treacherous agents of foreign powers has well established roots in the Soviet era. The difference now is that the administration itself has been actively calling for a functional multi-party system. President Dmitry Medvedev has even drafted a series of electoral reform bills designed to simplify the registration of political parties and expand proportional representation in the Duma.

Such calls will ring hollow if embryonic opposition movements are seen as legitimate targets of visceral attacks simply for political expediency. For high-profile attendees of the protests it will make reconciliation with the status quo all the more difficult.

With the battle lines drawn, political figures that have acted as a bridge between the Kremlin and the international community in the past may resist being pulled back into the ranks for fear of being tainted by the rhetoric. Arguably more serious from Putin's perspective allies such as Sobchak, who have provided a rare link with an increasingly politically active younger generation, could also have been lost.

The battle may have been won on Sunday, but someone needs to tell Putin that he's not fighting a war.

Around the Web

BBC News - Russia election: Vladimir Putin celebrates victory

Tearful Putin wins back Russian presidency | Reuters

Moscow Protesters Denounce Putin's Victory in Election - NYTimes ...