Russia deeply divided ahead of Putin presidential vote
REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- After weeks of opposition and pro-government rallies in Russia, both sides are preparing for a climax Monday, a day after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win the country's presidential election.
Most believe that Putin will win in the first round, solidifying his grasp on power and entering his third presidential term after one as prime minister.
As opposition leaders continue their tough talk and plan for a massive protest Monday, the front-runner is already accusing the opposition of preparing provocations and seeking violent clashes with police.
Speaking at a convention of supporters this week in Moscow, Putin expressed confidence in his Sunday victory and called on the opposition to accept the country’s choice.
"The main rule is that the opinion of the minority should be respected but the choice of the majority should be obeyed," Putin said. "And the minority has no right to impose their opinion on the majority."
Putin, who ordered the installation of online round-the-clock video cameras at every polling station in the country in the wake of allegations of widespread fraud in December parliamentary elections, accused the opposition of preparing falsifications in his favor at the polls Sunday to accuse him of fraud and lead to a confrontation.
"They are spoiling for a fight and doing everything to achieve that, and they are even ready to sacrifice somebody and accuse the authorities," Putin said.
Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, said he believes that the Russian leader is planning to lay the responsibility for his own fraud on the opposition.
"Putin is losing composure, as he knows that this time his road to the Kremlin will not be lain with roses and he is driven by fear to lose power and face prosecution for his crimes," Nemtsov said in an interview Saturday.
"The country has never been so obviously split into two opposing camps since the times of the 1918 civil war between the Whites against the Reds," said Nikita Petrov, a senior researcher with the Memorial society and a renowned expert on history of the KGB intelligence agency and special services. "Putin is playing with fire, engaging the country deeper and deeper in the old divide-and-rule game."
The scholar accused Putin of organizing "these five-minute hatred sessions from George Orwell’s "1984" on a mass scale across the country, with a goal of creating an enemy image and a "besieged fortress" mentality to help him prevail.
"In conditions when a significant part of the society don’t fall for this rhetoric and are determined to protest the results of the election, which was unfair from the very beginning of the race, Putin will have to choose between violent repressions and radical political reforms," Petrov said. "If he chooses repressions, he can stay in power longer but will eventually repeat the fate of [the late Libyan leader Moammar] Kadafi."
But a conservative political analyst downplayed the divisions.
"I see nothing dangerous in Putin’s rhetoric, as his campaign is very similar to U.S. campaign standards," said Maxim Shevchenko, a member of the Presidential Public Chamber, an Kremlin advisory board. "It is not words but deeds that lead to violence."
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: A man walks past a wall painted with graffiti featuring Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Saturday. Credit: John MacDougall / AFP/Getty Images