Voting against Putin in Riga

Ivan Makridin

 

On Sunday, I stood in line for four hours to vote in an election that had already been decided. I knew who was going to win, everyone in line knew who was going to win, but we were there anyway. I am a Russian journalist in exile in the Latvian capital Riga. Spoiling my ballot was my way, however futile, to reject Vladmir Putin’s regime.

Putin’s supposed landslide victory with 87% of the vote has been dismissed in the West. But standing in that line, I was reminded of the power of Russian disinformation, of the hold that Putin’s conspiracy theories have on voters. 

Sunday was the day of the Navalny-inspired “Noon Against Putin” protest, in which Russian voters stood together in muted solidarity at the appointed hour to show their disapproval. Reports in the press suggested that thousands queued up, perhaps offering some flickering hope for the future of Russian democracy. The people in those queues probably have some great stories to tell. I, on the other hand, was surrounded by mostly elderly Putin supporters. One older gentleman in the queue gave an impromptu speech about Western Europe being on the brink of a religious war because “Muslims have overrun France and Germany.” His speech echoed Putin’s contempt for European decadence, though Putin would have made the politically expedient argument that conservative Christians and Muslims are united in their distaste for a Europe that has departed from the “family values” it once held dear.

A woman I recognized as a pro-Kremlin blogger introduced herself to people in line as a journalist. She was there, she said, to ask questions about the election, but she mostly spoke about the suppression of freedom of speech in Latvia. Many of the Russians in the queue, most of them Latvian citizens too, nodded their heads in agreement.

Another woman, old enough to be my grandmother, loudly called Putin’s political opponents “scum.” She said she had been born in Latvia and had lived her entire life in the country, but then said angrily to someone in the line that “Russia doesn’t need people like you,” as if Latvia were somehow an extension of Russia. She then turned on me, accusing me of trying to commit voter fraud. According to her, I had already voted and was now back in line trying to “steal” another vote away from Putin. In the end, the embassy staff had to intervene and tell her to calm down.

Eventually, it was my turn to vote. Inside the embassy, the courteous staff offered a contrast to the Putin propaganda outside. I duly spoiled my ballot and so denied Putin at least one vote. The next morning, I felt groggy, a little sick, having perhaps caught a bug in the hours I spent queuing. Official exit polls had been published. In Riga, where many independent Russian journalists and media are now based, Putin had received over 70% of the votes.

GLOBAL NEWS

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi once did what most demagogues do — pander to the prejudices and anger of their support base. After 10 years in office though, Modi leaves the pandering to others. He focuses instead on creating the illusion of ubiquity. Last week, most Indians with a mobile phone received a WhatsApp message from the government with an attached personal letter from the prime minister addressed to “My dear family member.” The letter, which was a barely disguised election speech, raised data privacy concerns over the use of the app to send unsolicited political messages. The opposition has accused Modi of using the offices of the Indian state to spread political propaganda. Maybe once Modi is reelected next month for a third term in office, he will transcend politics and channel Louis XIV: “L’état, c’est moi.”  

Modi was once frequently compared to fellow demagogues Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. But if Modi stands on the cusp of winning a third five-year term as Indian prime minister, former Brazilian President Bolsonaro might be on the cusp of some prison time. He was accused this week of tampering with public records to falsify his Covid vaccination status to travel to the United States. Brazilian police recommended that Bolsonaro be criminally charged in a conspiracy to insert fake information into the national health database so that he and his young daughter could travel to the U.S. after his election defeat in 2022. Though Brazilians took the vaccine in large numbers, Bolsonaro himself said he wouldn’t take it and argued that it was a matter of choice, of “freedom above all.”

Bolsonaro is also facing legal heat for plotting to remain in power regardless of results in the 2022 election. Like Trump, Bolsonaro is accused of fomenting riots because of his refusal to accept defeat. But unlike Trump, Bolsonaro is barred from running for office until at least 2030 because he abused his power as president. Trump continues to show little remorse for his role in the January 6 riots at the US Capitol, calling convicted rioters “unbelievable patriots” at a campaign rally in Ohio on Saturday. He also promised that there would be a “bloodbath for the country” if he wasn’t elected president in November. He may have been, as Republicans contend, referring to a bloodbath for the auto industry, but the phrase carried chilling reminders of the political violence after the 2020 election. The narrative that Trump continues to push that the election was stolen from him has proven astonishingly effective: A poll last August found that nearly 70% of Republicans and those who lean conservative say President Joe Biden’s win was not legitimate. As my colleague Ivan Makridin argues below, it is the lies that demagogues tell to their own people that are the most dangerous.

WHAT WE’RE READING

“Artists are perfectly entitled to be (and often are) inconsistent in their dating of works,” say Damien Hirst’s lawyers. The Guardian claims Hirst deliberately misled curators, buyers and his audience by dating three of his sculptures of animals preserved in formaldehyde to the 1990s — which is when he first pickled a shark in the substance — even though the sculptures were made in 2017. The works, Hirst says, were “conceived” in the 1990s. But when were they made? Does it matter? And if not, why put a year at all?

The remainder of the newsletter was curated by Shougat Dasgupta.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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