Russian Election

Russia protests spark talk of Facebook revolution

Allegations of vote fraud have driven Russians to the streets, and prompted talk of a Russian spring.

Russian protest image from Facebook

High voter turnout is a worthy goal. But not too high. In Russia’s parliamentary elections, turnout in some areas was measured at 146% – a fact which, together with a host of other irregularities, has sparked a number of protests inRussia.

Much of this “sudden mass mobilisation”, writes Nikolaus von Twickel in the English-language Moscow Times, has taken place online.Russia, he says, is “inching closer to a Facebook revolution”. Anger is further fomented by signs that “authorities may be mulling a crackdown on Internet freedoms”.

Von Twickel was writing ahead of large-scale protests in Russia over the weekend, thought to be the largest demonstrations in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. Anyone looking for echoes of the Arab Spring will note, along with the Wall Street Journal, that the protests sparked a ten-fold increase in mobile phone usage.

In contrast to much of the Arab unrest, the Russian state media did not ignore or deny the protest activity, though they did not, it seems, examine the cause.

Mark Bennetts writes at RIA Novosti:

State-run TV decided to break its no long-standing dissent rule and show the protests. The top-rated Channel One even led with theMoscowrally. But it was an odd sort of coverage – anyone hearing about the unrest for the first time would have been hard-pressed to figure out exactly what everyone was so annoyed about.

There were no anti-Putin chants aired and the only placards or banners shown were so vague as to be meaningless. “Love each other!” read one. “Listen to us!” read another. Soundbites were just as hazy. “I came here today to see who else would come. Turns out I’m not alone. Great!” said one middle-aged man.

Reliably frothing in its defence of and deference to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, however, is “For those who are trying to insinuate that the paltry turn-out of ‘protesters’ in Moscow and St Petersburg are the beginning of an ‘Arab Spring’,” thunders Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, “the answer is that this is not an Arab Spring, but a Russian Winter, when people drink vodka to keep warm and when a certain type of citizen will do anything if an agent provocateur pays him/her to turn out at a protest, specially in the run-up to the festive season.”

For a thoughtful and informed take on the “spring-ness” of the Russian demonstrations, read this piece by Tony Brenton – a former UK ambassador to Russia – in the Telegraph. He concludes:

We are almost certainly not seeing a “Russian Spring”. But the events of the last few days have cracked the plinth on which the regime stands. It may be years rather than months, but it is only a matter of time beforeRussiatakes its rightful place among the other European democracies.

The next big protests is planned for December 24. It is being organised, it almost goes without saying, on Facebook.

New Zealand listener

December 13, 2011

The power of protest

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is the latest world leader to feel the chilly breath of democracy’s outriders around his usually well-muffed ears.

Last weekend inMoscowup to 50,000 people braved the intemperate conditions to protest against alleged widespread corruption and election fraud at the hands of the prime minister’s United Russia party. Nor was the protest limited to the seat of power: demonstrations were reported to have taken place in up to 50 cities, with 7000 assembling inSt Petersburgand4000 inthe Siberian city ofNovosibirsk, undeterred by mid-winter temperatures of -20degC.

They were protesting against the blatant vote-rigging said to have occurred during the latest parliamentary election which saw United Russia gain a winning 49.32% of the vote, a figure alleged to have been bloated by various fraudulent activities, some of which were documented by now-widespread digital technologies – smartphones and the like – and circulated on the internet. Possessed by a growing, educated urban middle class, these same tools have helped to mobilise a usually compliant and apolitical section of Russian society. Mr Putin’s functionaries have evidently yet to catch up with the notion that in the digital age nothing is secret – and the subsequent mobilisation of the outraged and the disenfranchised more easily facilitated than ever.

The tens of thousands who gathered to protest at the electoral fraud were mostly young and brought together through various social networking sites. Such is their penetration inRussia- as elsewhere in the world – that there is little an authoritarian government can do to redraw the curtain of secrecy across hitherto corrupt practices.

With the aid of new technology, the protester has emerged as a singular force in the modern age with a sway not seen since the social turmoil of 1968. Now Time magazine has named “The Protester” the Person of the Year for 2011.

Cited as the person or thing that has most influenced the culture and the news during the year in question, the magazine said it was recognising protesters because they are “redefining people power” around the world. The most far-reaching popular protest movements this year have been those of the “Arab Spring”.

These were mobilised across North Africa and theMiddle Eastby populations which had long suffered the multiple and ongoing injustices of tyrannical regimes – but until the widespread advent of digital devices and social networking sites had neither the means to share their outrage nor to organise their response. That changed as images of brutality and of resistance were captured by smartphone video and posted on the internet; and as sites sprang up to act as virtual headquarters or rallying points for popular protest movements.

Regimes fell inTunisiaandEgypt. A power struggle pitting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad against dissidents throughout the country continues inSyria.

InYementhere has been a change of leadership. Protest has quietened, for now, inIran, but the political face of the region has been reconfigured away from despotism and towards more inclusive forms of government. The West, too, has seen sustained protest this year in the form of the Occupy movement, which, while initiated in theOccupy Wall Streetphenomenon, spread across the globe.

Protesting against inequality and some of the more socially corrosive outcomes of unfettered neo-liberal capitalism, branches set up in public spaces in almost allNew Zealandcities, includingAuckland,Wellington,Christchurchand inDunedin’s Octagon.

Whether this last group has succeeded in generating a coherent message to the masses is another matter. In a country in which most people eat three square meals a day and many spend parts of their weekends considering the inspection for purchase of the latest batch of consumer goods, it might be thought not. There are, however, indications it has generated support in some quarters, in particular as a red flag against increasing corporate wealth and rising levels of poverty. That in itself is not to be sniffed at. As Time editor Rick Stengel noted: “They [the protesters] literally embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change.”

Otago Daily Times

Fri, 16 Dec 2011

Protesters chant for a ‘Russiawithout Putin’

Sun, 11 Dec 2011

People attend a rally in Bolotnaya square to protest against violations at the parliamentary elections inMoscow. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

In the middle of the crowd atRussia’s largest opposition protest in years, a big banner bore a simple message: Putin must go.

Anger overRussia’s December 4 parliamentary election drew a diverse crowd to a cold embankment inMoscow, where they stood for hours under wet snow to demand a rerun of a vote Putin’s foes say was rigged in his ruling United Russia party’s favour.

But while organisers did not include the prime minister’s resignation in their list of demands, much of the ire was directed at Putin.

For Olga, 38, the vote reconfirmed a conviction that as Putin has gained power over more than a decade as president and then prime minister, the people he governs have become increasingly powerless.

“It’s his system,” said Olga, a Muscovite who would not give her last name.

Felix,68, aretired military officer who remembers the hug demonstations that accompanied the collapse of theSoviet Union20 years ago, said he wanted Putin out but had no hope that this could be accomplished through elections.

“There is no way to change those in power within the electoral system they have set up, so we need to use other methods,” he said, waiting for friends on a subway platform before the rally and ignoring a policeman with a megaphone calling for people to leave the station.

“More radical actions are needed, but the people are not ready for that yet … so for now we will protest,” he said. “People must have their say and express their opinion.”

At the protest, one man did so silently. Standing almost motionless for minutes at a stretch, he held a simple A4 size sheet of paper printed with the slogan: “Mr Putin, my civil rights are not your property.”

Most of the protesters were more vocal, mixing shouted calls for a new election with chants of “Down with Putin!” and — one of the standard slogans at much smaller protests held by Kremlin foes before the election — “Russia without Putin!”

ThatRussiamay not come for years, despite nationwide protests whose size — unthinkable even a few weeks ago — prompted one speaker to say that opposition flags would soon fly from the Kremlin’s towers.

Recent opinion polls have shown Putin, president for eight years until 2008 and prime minister since then, remains the most popular politician inRussia.

He can count on millions of votes in a March 4 presidential election in which polls indicate he will win a six-year term. If he does, he could run again and potentially rule until 2024.

“Putin won’t leave and there won’t be any major changes in the country,” said Ernst Klyavitsky,75, arewired electrician who said he had “never missed a protest” against Communist rule as theSoviet Unionwas on the verge of collapse.

“But the authorities need to know how angry we are,” he said.

They know now and are frightened, said Boris Baranov, 36, analyst and translator for a Moscow engineering firm who waited outside a kiosk near the protest site as his friends stocked up on rolls to fortify them during the four-hour rally.

“Authoritarian governments are more sensitive to public opinion than many think,” Baranov said.

On the streets around the protest site atBolotnaya Square, hundreds of helmeted riot police with truncheons and body armour and trucks full of troops seemed to support his argument.

“You can tell that those in power are worried — they fear this,” Baranov said of the protests

Otago Daily Times

Hundreds detained atMoscowprotest

Wed, 7 Dec 2011

A member of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Stal (Steel) wearing a Darth Vader mask participates in a rally in downtownMoscow. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

Police have clashed with demonstrators protesting vote fraud inMoscowand at least two other major Russian cities, as anger has boiled over against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party.

At least 250 people were detained by police at a protest in downtownMoscow, where flare-type fireworks were thrown at a group of pro-Kremlin youth, said city police spokesman Maxim Kolosvetov.

Russian news agencies reported about 200 were arrested at a similar attempt to hold an unsanctioned rally inSt. Petersburgand another 25 protesters were arrested in the southern city ofRostov-on-Don.

It was the second consecutive night of large protests inMoscowandSt. Petersburg, an unusually sustained show of indignation that came after widespread reports of vote fraud in Sunday’s parliamentary election. Russian police routinely crack down hard on unauthorized rallies and protesters generally take time to regroup for a new attempt.

According to preliminary results,Putin’s dominant United Russia party lost a large share of the seats it had held in the State Duma but still kept a majority of seats.

Opponents say even that reduced presence came because of vote fraud. Local and international election observers reported widespread ballot-stuffing and irregularities in the vote count.

The protesters appear to be both angered by the reported fraud and energized by the vote’s show of declining support for Putin and his party, which have strongly overshadowed all other political forces inRussiafor a dozen years.

But pro-Kremlin supporters also put on two large rallies in Moscow, attracting thousands and showing vehement divisions in Russian society.

Otago Daily Times

Russians wearying of Putin’s rule

Wed, 7 Dec 2011

Russian police detain a participant   during an opposition protest in central Moscow on Monday. Several thousand people protested what they said was a fraudulent parliamentary election, shouting “Revolution!” and calling for an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s rule. Photo Reuters.

“Throughout the day, it was like receiving reports from a war zone,” said Communist Party deputy head Ivan Melnikov last Sunday, speaking about the thousands of calls he had received from regional offices about ballot-box stuffing and other violations in the Russian parliamentary elections.

But despite the manipulation, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party got fewer than half the votes this time, down from almost two-thirds in 2007.

Mr Putin’s party will still form the next government, since it can easily form a coalition with smaller pro-regime parties in the Duma, but it has lost the two-thirds majority that let it amend the constitution at will.

And Mr Putin will still return to the presidency in March’s presidential elections, but the erosion in his popular support is suddenly visible for all to see.

The first clear sign that Russians were getting fed up with Mr Putin came two weeks ago, when he made an unheralded appearance at a martial-arts fight at the Olympiyskiy Stadium inMoscow. That wasn’t surprising, as he makes a great public show of his own prowess in the martial arts. But when he climbed into the ring to congratulate the winner, the audience began to boo and whistle at him. They didn’t stop until he left.

It was all broadcast live on Russian state television, and subsequently went viral on YouTube and the Russian social media. There is no credible rival to Mr Putin on the scene, but neither is it certain any more that he will serve out the full six years of his new presidential term. He is wearing out his welcome.

He really was welcome when the first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, handed the presidency to him in 1999. Mr Yeltsin’s drunken and corrupt conduct of state affairs had discredited “democracy” in the eyes of most Russians, and Mr Putin presented himself as the new broom who would sweep all that away.

He wasn’t exactly that: the price he paid for being named interim president when Mr Yeltsin finally quit was to let him and his cronies walk away untouched with their stolen wealth. But as Russians got to know him, they mostly liked what they saw.

During Mr Putin’s two terms as president in 2000-08, he stabilised the ravaged economy: average salaries increased fivefold and the GDP grew by almost 8% a year. High oil prices helped, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless, and when he left the presidency three years ago he could still do no wrong in the eyes of most Russians.

He left it becauseRussia’s constitution forbids a third consecutive term as president. It was a nice gesture, but he didn’t really leave power. His close ally Dmitry Medvedev was elected to the presidency, and then Mr Medvedev appointed Mr Putin as prime minister. In practice, Mr Putin went on making the big decisions himself, including the decision to return as president next year.

But the past four years have not been as kind to Mr Putin as the first eight. The economy has stagnated, and the scale of the corruption has grown too large to ignore. (He is not personally corrupt, but everyone thinks he tolerates the massive corruption among his allies in order to maintain their loyalty.) So when he announced in September that he would run for the presidency again in March, something seems to have snapped.

There were two straws that broke the camel’s back. One was his and Mr Medvedev’s public admission that they had agreed on the swap long ago.

Everybody sort of knew that, but it was still galling to have Mr Putin’s total ownership of the state apparatus rubbed in their faces. The other was the fact that while Mr Putin was prime minister, he amended the constitution so that the presidential term is now not four but six years.

In the past couple of months, Russians have suddenly woken up to the reality that they may face another twelve years of him as the all-powerful president (he’s only 59 now), and a lot of them have realised that they don’t actually like that prospect. Hence the steep fall in United Russia’s share of the vote last Sunday; and, probably, in Mr Putin’s share of the presidential vote next March.

He’ll still win, of course, but it may be a long and miserable six years for him unless the oil price goes through the roof andRussiaexperiences another economic boom. Once the bloom goes off the rose, it almost never comes back. So where doesRussiago from here?

Russiadoesn’t need another revolution. Despite the chronic abuses of power, the perversion of the courts, and the intimidation of the media,Russiacould re-emerge as a real democracy quite smoothly if Mr Putin ever decided to let it.

Could he leadRussiathrough such a transition?

It is not to be excluded, for Mr Putin is acutely conscious of his place in history and would not want to end up being rejected at the polls or, even worse, being forced to yield power by a popular revolt.

Better to hand the country over in good condition and retire gracefully in four or five years. He is egotistical and arrogant, as are most powerful people, but he is not just a thug.

–          Gwynne Dyer is an independent London journalist.

Otago Daily Times

Poor election shows Putin’s vulnerability

Mon, 5 Dec 2011

Vladimir Putin

One of the worst election results of his 12-year rule has exposed Vladimir Putin’s Achilles heel: his vulnerability to a mood change among the Russian people.

For one of the most powerful men on the planet, it is an unsavoury truth to ponder as he polishes his electoral armour to win a Kremlin return in the March 4 presidential vote.

Win he may, but today’s parliamentary poll showed millions of Russians are growing tired of a leader who plans to rule for at least six more years. Such a souring of mood, in a system without credible rivals, had seemed inconceivable as recently as September when he announced his plans to reclaim the presidency.

Putin’s party won about half of the vote, far less than the 64 percent it won in 2007 when Putin, now 59, was riding high onRussia’s longest economic boom in a generation.

Many Russians were so fed up that they even voted Communist, 20 years almost to the day since the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time.

Though Putin remainsRussia’s most popular politician, the disenchantment exposed by the election bodes ill for the long term stability of a political system crafted around his personal popularity and patronage, some businessmen and politicians said.

“Listen, for the ruling circle, he remains the leader. There is no question about that whatsoever,” said one Russian businessman on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of being seen to criticise Putin.

“There is a change in the way he is seen on the ground but it would have to get much sharper for there to be any move to find an alternative. And there is no alternative.”

But others whisper that Putin and his ruling circle of former spies, billionaire oligarchs and Kremlin officials have been troubled by the shift in public opinion.

“He is not losing power, but he realizes he is losing the people,” said one Russian source.

For supporters and opponents alike, the election has shown the winds of change may be starting to blow against Putin, who ruledRussiaas prime minister in late 1999, then as president from 2000-08 and then again as prime minister since 2008.

A turning point in popular perceptions came just two weeks before the election when sports fans booed and whistled the macho former KGB spy as he stepped into the ring at a martial arts fight inMoscow.

Allowing just a blink of bewilderment as he peered around the stadium, Putin pressed on to hail fighter Fyodor Yemelyanenko’s victory over American rival Jeff Monson. One fan screamed “leave” as Putin spoke.

Three days after the outburst at the martial arts fight, Putin grimaced when some lawmakers failed to stand up as he entered the lower house of parliament for its last session before the election, a rare sign of insolence towards Russia’s most powerful man.

For the Kremlin’s political managers that is serious. Putin’s assumed role as anchor of Russian stability for everyone from billionaires to pensioners getting along on 8289 roubles ($US270) a month depends on his popularity.

Without it, Putin becomes vulnerable. And until now, Putin’s carefully cultivated macho image – riding a horse bare chested, tracking tigers, flying a fighter – allowed for no suggestion of vulnerability.

“It [the election result] shows that Putin is vulnerable, but the million dollar question is how he deals with being vulnerable. Does he spend like crazy or does he crack down?” said one Western banker.

“The vulnerability is going to be a worry for everyone in the elite. There is no rush but it is an indication that the next six years are going to be a hell of a lot harder than the last 12 years were for Putin.”

Putin’s September 24 announcement that he will run for the presidency in 2012, after four years as prime minister, cemented a perception that Putin has locked himself into a job only he can do.

“He has created a system where no one but he can be president, a system only he can rule. It is an historical trap,” Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of the small Yabloko party which ran against Putin’s party, said in an interview.

“It is completely obvious to everyone that everything cannot stay as it is. You are spectators at a moment in history when those deep historical shifts are taking place,” he said

Yavlinsky said that Russians were employing a weapon they have used against tsars and general secretaries for centuries: turning away from the leader, a trend underlined by the jokes Russians use to satirise their masters in the Kremlin.

“Putin has long outgrown the position of president. He is the chief (vozhd). His place is in the mausoleum,” goes one such joke, referring the mausoleum onRed Squarewhich houses the embalmed body of communist state founder Vladimir Lenin.

With the resources of state behind him, Putin is almost certain to win the March 4 presidential election, but opponents fear he will usher in a period of stagnation that could setRussiaon the path to turmoil.

After winning in 2012, he is free to run for another term from 2018 to2024, aquarter of a century after he rose to prominence in late 1999.

“While Putin’s power will remain unchallenged, the political system is more vulnerable,” said Christopher Granville, managing director at Trusted Sources, a research firm specializing in emerging markets.

“Putin’s decision to run again and to hold onto power has accentuated that disenchantment with him and the ruling establishment he leads,” said Granville, who has also served as a British diplomat inMoscow.

UnitedRussia’s failure was Putin’s failure.

UnitedRussiahad to fight against opponents who have branded it as a collection “swindlers and thieves”, a slogan it dismisses as the invention of those who wish to destroyRussia.

Putin added to confusion in the campaign by making Medvedev lead United Russia, a difficult job for a party which views Putin as its main electoral asset.

Such was the embarrassment with the election results that Medvedev, unshaven and tired, evoked nervous laughs at campaign headquarters when he quipped in front of Putin that at least it was clear United Russia would get into parliament.

Personal disaffection could prove a problem for Putin if, as he has suggested in recent statements,Russia’s $US1.9 trillion economy is likely to be struck by a global slowdown and risk aversion due to the euro zone debt crisis.

When President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on the last day of the millennium and handed over the nuclear suitcase to Putin, it was a breath of fresh air for many Russians.

Putin’s vigour and even his sometimes crude language – vowing to wipe out rebellious Chechens “in the shithouse” – appealed to many Russians after the chaos which had accompanied the fall of theSoviet Unionand thrown millions into poverty.

He promised order and reform and he was blessed with a bull market for the lifeblood of the Russian economy: oil.

Russian nominal gross domestic product (GDP) rose to $US1.9 trillion this year from just $US200 billion in 1999.

But forRussia’s 143 million people, high prices, a slowdown in real wage growth, the crumbling welfare state, unemployment and corruption top the list of concerns.

To fix those problems, businessmen have been arguing for years that Putin should implement far reaching economic reforms to open up the economy. But such reforms would challenge some of the powerful barons who investors say surround Putin.

“Many Russians voted against the system and Putin is the head of that system,” Stanislav Kucher, a commentator with Kommersant FM radio station.

“Putin has a very difficult choice. To survive politically he needs to reform but he can only reform if he gets rid of many vested interests in the ruling circle. To stay as he is means the opposite of political survival.”

Otago Daily Times

Russian voters deal Putin election blow

Mon, 5 Dec 2011

Anarchists burn flares during a protest after voting closed inRussia’s parliamentary election in centralMoscowovernight. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Vladimir Putin’s ruling party suffered a big drop in support in a parliamentary election on Sunday, exit polls showed, as voters signalled their growing unease with his domination of Russian politics before a planned return to the presidency next year.

Two exit polls suggested Putin’s party, United Russia, would win 45.5 and or 48.5 percent of the votes in the election to the State Duma compared with 64.3 percent in 2007 and that it could struggle even to hold on to a majority in the chamber.

The vote was widely seen as a test of Putin’s personal authority after signs that Russians have started to tire of his tough-guy image, built up by his crushing of a rebellion in revel Chehnya and antics such as bare-chested horse riding.

“Russiahas a new political reality even if they rewrite everything,” said Sergei Obukhov, a parliamentary deputy of the Communist Party, which made considerable gains, its vote almost doubling to around 20 percent, according to the exit poll.

A United Russia leader, Boris Gryzlov, looked stunned when he addressed reporters after voting ended but claimed victory and said: “We are watching and hope that we shall get a majority of the mandate in the State Duma”.

“We can say that United Russia remains the ruling party.”

But there can be little to cheer Putin, who has dominated Russian politics since becoming president in 2000 and serving in the post until2008. Inthat year he was obliged to step down, the constitution preventing him serving more than two consecutive terms.

Official results after about 10 percent of the votes had been counted showed United Russia with 45.9 percent of the vote and the communists with 20.7 percent.

The exit poll did not make clear how the 450 seats in the Duma would be shared out under complicated calculations. But one poll projected United Russia, which has dominated the chamber since 2003, would have only 220 seats.

The communist party emerged in second place in both polls with considerable gains over 2007.

Putin remains by far the most popular politician in the vast country of more than 140 million people but there have been signs that some Russians are wearying of his cultivated strong-man image after 12 years in power.

“UnitedRussiahas lost touch with reality,” said a 30-year-old history teacher inSt Petersburgwho gave his name only as Alexander.

Putin is still almost certain to win the March 4 presidential election and could extend his rule until 2024 if he wins the maximum two more terms.

The 59-year-old ex-spy looked stern and said only that he hoped for good results for his ruling United Russia party as he walked past supporters to vote inMoscow.

The result was also a blow for President Dmitry Medvedev, who is standing down to allow Putin to resume the presidency he ceded to him in 2008.

Medvedev, who would take over the prime  minister’s office from Putin next year, had led the election campaign.

His position could now be in question.

Opposition parties complained of election irregularities in parts of the country spanning 9000km and a Western-financed electoral watchdog and two liberal media outlets said their sites had been shut down by hackers intent on silencing allegations of violations.

Sites belonging to the Ekho Moskvy radio station, online news portal and the watchdog Golos went down at around 8am (local time).

“Massive cyber attacks are taking place on the sites of Golos and the map showing violations,” Golos said on Twitter.

Medvedev has dismissed talk of electoral fraud.

Supporters say Putin savedRussiaduring his 2000-2008 presidency, restoring Kremlin control over sprawling regions and reviving an economy mired in post-Soviet chaos.

His use of military force to crush a rebellion in the southern Muslim region ofChechnyaalso won him broad support, and security was tight there on election day.

Opposition parties say the election was unfair from the start because of authorities’ support for United Russia with cash and television air time.

Putin has no serious personal rivals asRussia’s leader. He remains the ultimate arbiter between the clans which control the world’s biggest energy producer.

But his party has had to fight against opponents who have branded it a collection of “swindlers and thieves” and combat a growing sense of unease among voters at Putin’s grip on power.

Sports fans booed and whistled at Putin at aMoscowmartial arts fight last month — an exceptional event in a country inclined to show respect and restraint towards leaders.

Otago Daily Times

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