Elections usually mean some kind of beginning but all Russia saw this week was the same old stuff: electoral suspicion, death, fire and exploding buildings. Sunday brought an inevitable victory for a genuinely popular, but dictatorially inclined, president and then as if on cue the centre of Moscow burst into flames.
Within an hour of the polls closing, one of the city’s architectural masterpieces, the former Imperial Riding School, now known as the Manezh, was ravaged by flames just a few metres from the Kremlin. Two firemen died in a blaze regarded by many as suspicious. Two days later, a nine-storey building blew up in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, killing 32 people and sparking fears of a terrorist attack.
As omens for the next four years go, it was not good, noted the papers. Vladimir Putin’s dominance in the presidential election – he took nearly 50% more than his closest rival – was met with concerns about why he felt he needed to control an election that he would have won anyway.
Kommersant published a list of republics that had done their duty and brought out the public – for example, 97.72% turned out in the republic of Kabardino-Balkarskaya – with the implication that the bad boys, those with less than 50%, would be getting slapped wrists in the near future.
Meanwhile, an amazing 94.99% in war-torn Chechnya “voted” for Mr Putin. “As early as Saturday, members of our commission filled out the ballots in accordance with the instructions,” Ziyadi Chagayev, the deputy head of a polling station in Grozny, told the Moscow Times. “On Sunday we only had to stuff them in the boxes.”
As ever, Kommersant, owned by Boris Berezovsky, the exiled tycoon and avowed opponent of the man he says he “made” president, tried to puncture the president’s euphoria. Mr Putin’s victory was demoted to the bottom of the paper’s front page by the Manezh fire. The headline was “Putin comes ninth”.
Ninth in the sense that although he took a handsome victory with 71% of the vote, Mr Putin is still far behind other leaders in the former Soviet Union – eight to be precise – including the most “popular” president in the region, pseudo-Stalinist Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who won 99.5% of the vote in its last election in 1992.
Commentators marvelled at the success of Mr Putin, who declined to campaign, and whose plans, despite the announcement of a new government earlier in the month, remain uncertain.
Vedomosti, the liberally inclined business paper, made its point more politely than Kommersant but with much the same result. “The election showed that most Russians do not need a programme,” it said in an editorial, saying Russians voted for stability, rather than plans.
“We are now dependent on the feelings, sense of proportion and taste of the president,” said the paper. “It’s good that he has read books, been to the Hermitage and the Tretyakov Gallery, so maybe he doesn’t want to follow the example of Mr Niyazov and become the ‘father of the Russian people’, a lifetime president with a statue of pure gold following the course of the sun on Red Square.”
Turning away – in theory only – from the elections, the smouldering Manezh and the building that once was in Arkhangelsk were for many reminders of how little things change in the way Russia is governed. The blast in Arkhangelsk, even if it proves to be only an accidental gas explosion, as local authorities expect, was an echo of the apartment blocks blown up in attacks blamed on Chechen rebels in 1999.
The Manezh fire, which many suspect was arson, drew attention to the Moscow government’s long-term choice of brutal development at the historical heart of the city. “Much earlier than Russia, Moscow chose to place all its bets on financial stability,” wrote Alexander Arkhangelsky in Izvestia. “The majority of Moscovites voluntarily voted for stagnated stability and fat dreams – in 1999 and 2003 they told the city government: ‘do what you want, how you want, knock down the historical centre … just give us back municipal socialism, give us the illusion of peace.’”
By voting for Mr Putin, Russians as a whole had shown much the same herd instinct as the residents of the capital. “The population wants exactly what Moscovites wanted in 1999 and 2003. Stability at the price of stagnation, illusion instead of reality. But the result will be the same.”