Russia-watchers are wondering if a leaked report on 2011 Duma election fraud could really be a bizarre maneuver to keep support for President Vladimir Putin high.
The leaked report suggests that Putin's party, United Russia, may have stolen the 2011 parliamentary election from the Communist Party through widespread voter fraud.
This certainly isn't the the first accusation of fraud in the 2011 election — the election results led to the biggest anti-Kremlin protests of the last decade — but the detail of the report is unusual, alleging that the Communist Party gained the most seats with 30 percent of the vote, with United Russia only receiving 22 percent of the vote.
Putin was leader of United Russia at the time, and he has enjoyed the support of the party for over a decade, so in theory this should be bad for him.
However, the report appears to have been leaked by a body with Putin links — a think tank overseen by Kremlin insider Vladimir Yakunin, a key Putin ally. Yakunin's Center for Analysis of Public Policy and Management is refusing to allow staff to give interviews after the leak, and says it has no plans formally to release the report.
"Yakunin is one of the pillars of the regime. He is particularly close to Putin and a member of the informal politburo," United Russia member Valery Fedotov wrote on his LiveJournal. "Such a person would never go into opposition. It appears the authorities are launching a trial balloon and testing public opinion."
As for how the leak could help Putin, there are signs that he has been seeking to distance himself from United Russia, viewing the party's growing unpopularity as a weight on his own personal high popularity. He stepped down as leader of the party last year , and rumors have swirled within Moscow that he may be seeking to have it dissolved entirely.
Brian Whitmore of the Kremlin-watching blog Power Vertical points towards chatter about the possibility of a new Duma election, perhaps hoping to erase the uncomfortable legacy of the 2011 election.
"This report's release is a clear political move at a definite moment," Nikolai Petrov, an expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told the Christian Science Monitor's Fred Weir. "The fact it's being put out now suggests that we are on the eve of some essential political shift. This is just one straw in the wind, but a very clear one. All elite clans are becoming more active, moving into new positions, getting ready for something."
The 2011 election has certainly been a sticking point for the Russian opposition. Despite protests and videos that appeared to show widespread fraud, United Russia party went on to win the most seats in the Duma by a close margin.
A few months later, Putin was re-elected president. Perhaps in a telling detail, this new report clearly states that Putin was the legitimate winner of that election.
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