MOSCOW -- Russia's winter of discontent began with doubts about the integrity of the December parliamentary vote.
From there, it got worse, with observers in Russia and abroad saying the run-up to the country's presidential elections on March 4 has been riddled with blatant violations of legal campaign conduct, including the failure to register opposition candidates, forced participation in political rallies, and television coverage skewed wildly in favor of the favored candidate, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Such violations have prompted some to question the legitimacy of the presidential vote, which they say is an attempt by Putin to seize a loosely unconstitutional third term -- technically, the constitution bars the president from holding the post for more than two terms "in a row" -- despite a resume replete with political failures, an absence of measurable achievements, and dearth of earnest public support.
As early as January, opposition candidates saw their opportunity to challenge Putin evaporate. Most notably, Yabloko party founder Grigory Yavlinsky lost his chance to run for election after the Central Election Commission (TsIK) refused to register his candidacy, saying a significant portion of the 2 million signatures of support he had gathered as part of his application were flawed.
"Who's making this decision?" Yavlinsky said at a news conference in Moscow. "I think Vladimir Putin's making this decision. Who else? No one else."
It soon became clear that the signatures in question were in fact far fewer in number -- less than 3 percent of the overall total
-- rather than the more than 5 percent the TsIK had claimed.
The call to register Yavlinsky became one of the biggest rallying cries at the February 4 opposition protests at Bolotnaya Square, and even EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton weighed in, urging the authorities to reconsider their decision.
Nonetheless, the Russian Supreme Court ultimately ruled the TsIK decision was legal. Yavlinsky remains off the ballot.
So too does a second opposition figure, Eduard Limonov. Limonov, the head of the Other Russia coalition, saw his candidacy hopes vanish when his supporters were barred from a hotel they had rented for a nomination meeting. The group later managed to hold a meeting on a bus, but a notary public refused to validate the proceedings.
The Supreme Court upheld the TsIK's decision, and Limonov appealed the refusal
of registration in the European Court of Human Rights.
The dwindling pool of alternative candidates added fuel to the season's wave of mass opposition protests, which were some of the largest in the country's post-Soviet history.
But here as well, pro-Putin forces sought to counter the unprecedented wave of public activism, organizing rallies so well attended -- some by more than 100,000 people -- they prompted accusations that the authorities were using administrative resources to build sizable, if less than enthusiastic, crowds.
Putin himself acknowledged that budgetary resources had contributed to the rallies, but remained sanguine about their effect. "Of course, when the authorities organize something, there's always talk about administrative resources," the prime minister told the Interfax news agency. "I don't rule out that some elements of those resources were used, but to gather 134,000 or 190,000 people on the basis of a single 'resource' is impossible."
Still, there was ample evidence that Putin's forces were dipping into official pockets to buy the illusion of political zeal at numerous demonstrations during the campaign season.
Reporting from a massive pro-government rally at Moscow's Poklonnaya Gora timed to correspond with the Bolotnaya Square opposition gathering on February 4, correspondents from RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to numerous teachers and other public-sector workers who said they had been threatened
with firing or enticed with the promise
of a day off to attend the rally.
Still others said they had come after being promised a payment
of 500 rubles ($17) and many were disgruntled after the rally when no money was forthcoming.
"I needed to gather 250 people," Sergei Morozov, a so-called "crowd-builder" who had been elicited to bulk up the body count, told RFE/RL. "They were told they'd get 500 rubles apiece. But at the end of the rally they counted just 85 of our people; 160 people didn't get paid for their work. They promised to pay after the rally, but they didn't. United Russia failed to meet its obligations."
Participants at a similar pro-Putin rally held at Luzhniki Stadium on February 23 indicated they were not even certain
whom they were meant to be supporting
. RFE/RL spoke to a number of university students who had been asked to attend in exchange for a "pass" mark in their exam booklet; some workers had been enticed to the gathering on the promise that they could take the rest of the day off
But if both the regime and the opposition saw large turnouts for street protests, the campaign season as depicted by the media was an entirely different matter.
Russian election law stipulates that the activities of all presidential candidates should be given equal coverage by the media. But particularly on television, where all federal channels remain fully loyal to the state, the division of air time was deeply uneven, with stations giving nearly all of their coverage to Putin.
The League of Voters, a civic organization formed after the December parliamentary elections with the help of respected writers and journalists, has blamed the country's TV moguls for creating an unrelenting stream of propaganda in the service of a single candidate.
"All information related to the prime minister is treated as absolute truth, without offering third-party peer review or handing the floor to opponents," the group said in an open letter
. "In this way, state television, for all intents and purposes, works like the TV department in the headquarters of a single candidate who is running unopposed, drumming into the popular consciousness the notion that he is the obvious victor, standing far above all other competition."
State-run channels ran little coverage of opposition rallies, but gave ample airtime
to the pro-government gatherings at Poklonnaya Gora and Luzhniki. Russian prosecutors, meanwhile, opened an investigation into the independent online station Dozhd TV for its live coverage of two major opposition rallies in Moscow in December.
The authorities took other steps as well to hinder opposition protests, with officials in many cities rejecting applications to hold peaceful protest rallies. In many instances, activists were forced to get creative -- or even absurd, as in the case of the remote city of Barnaul, where protesters blocked from physically gathering themselves instead created a protest "installation" out of children's toys holding miniature placards
in the city's central square.
"We really want to get to a situation when they finally listen to us," Olga Artamanova, a student and one of the organizers of the January 7 Barnaul protest, told RFE/RL. "So that we can have fair elections and so that they allow us to hold public demonstrations, which they're legally obligated to do."
Officials, displaying little sense of humor, declared the toy protest illegal as well. Elsewhere, participants in unsanctioned protests were arrested and detained for days or handed heavy fines.
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on a report by Yelena Vlasenko of RFE/RL's Russian Service. Russian Service correspondents Natalya Dzhanpoladova and Oleg Kupchinsky also contributed to this report from Moscow and Barnaul