News / Europe

Pro-Democracy Protests Put Putin, Russia at Turning Point

Supporters of Russian communist party hold a rally to protest against violations at the parliamentary elections in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, December 9, 2011.
Supporters of Russian communist party hold a rally to protest against violations at the parliamentary elections in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, December 9, 2011.
James Brooke

Is the Arab Spring moving North to become the Russian Winter? With democracy demonstrations to take place across Russia on Saturday, the world’s largest nation may be at a crossroads.

From his prison cell near the Arctic Circle, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed Russian tycoon, captured the core of Russia’s political impasse when he predicted a few weeks ago that the key question would not be who will win Russia’s elections, but how much will the fraud undermine the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin’s government?

On Saturday, barely one week after Russia’s parliamentary elections, we may see the answer.

Readying for major protest

A Moscow protest demonstration permitted for 300 people has drawn attendance pledges from 50,000 people. Moscow is bracing for the largest democracy demonstration of the Putin decade.

Beyond the capital, protests are to take place in 88 Russian and 43 foreign cities. From Kaliningrad on the Baltic to Vladivostok on the Pacific, Russians seem to be shaking off an apathy that Putin's opponents say has allowed him to rule Russia largely unchallenged since 2000.

Where is all this headed?

Boris Makarenko, chairman of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank in Moscow, does not believe the Russian street will dethrone the Czar.

“I don’t think it is going towards an Orange Revolution like in Ukraine, Georgia or Yugoslavia,” said Makarenko.

Putin's eroding popularity

But Russia has changed. The mystique of Putin’s invincibility has shown some cracks.

The first shock came when a crowd at a martial arts fight booed Putin, a judo expert. The Kremlin later said the crowd was really booing a losing contestant, an American. Then the Kremlin said the beer drinkers in the crowd were booing because presidential security did not let them use the bathrooms.

Kremlin watchers have noted, though, that Putin has not appeared in public since, skipping two anti-drug rallies where he had been billed as a speaker.

In last Sunday’s elections, the vote for the ruling United Russia Party officially dropped to half of the ballots cast. But opposition politicians and many election observers say that, without fraud, only one quarter of the voters in Moscow and St. Petersburg cast ballots for the ruling party. Historically, it is hard to rule Russia without these two cities.

Questions surround elections

Keeping passions on a boil, Russia’s Internet is flooded with videos, photos and reports alleging election fraud. Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s second richest man, wrote on his blog: “The majority of our people think the elections were unfair.”

On Tuesday night, while police were arresting more than 500 anti-Putin protesters in central Moscow, Putin was a few blocks away, studying paintings at a show of Caravaggio, the 17th century Italian painter.

In a short three months, Putin faces voters as a candidate for president and has to make choices about his strategy.

He can crack down, following the path of neighboring Belarus. He can open up, offering reforms. Or he can spread government money around, drawing on Russia’s massive foreign currency reserves - about half a trillion dollars.

Putin's path ahead

Vladimir Tikhomirov, an analyst with Otkritie investment house, believes Putin will do a little bit of everything, aiming to keep power.

“I wouldn’t rule out the traditional Russian way of trying to muddle through, using the combinations of reforms and police state,” said Tikhomirov.

The Kremlin has full control of the police and the television stations. Ten days from now, Russians will shift focus to the Christmas-New Year’s season, a holiday period that stretches through to mid-January.

One month ago, Anatol Lieven, a professor at the War Studies Department in King’s College London, joined a group dinner with Prime Minister Putin. He calls Putin a master politician and predicts he will regain his footing.

“It’s just the beginning of course. I would not expect this to prevent Putin’s re-election, let alone to produce a revolution that would bring down the regime,’’ said Lieven.

On Tuesday, Putin spoke to ruling party leaders who are irritated that the opposition calls their party “the party of thieves and swindlers.” Putin recalled that in the Soviet days, people called the authorities “thieves and bribe takers.”

With a six-year presidential term at stake in March, analyst Makarenko said Putin has to offer Russians a vision for the future.

“The catch is that the Russian people lost its optimism during the crisis - not the savings, not the social status. People want their optimism back - and the ruling party did not care to help them in that. Mr. Putin has his chance. He has his agenda to announce,” said Makarenko.

But on Thursday, Putin took a page out of an old Soviet playbook, charging that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent out a “signal” that activated Russia’s street protests.

This week, police in Moscow and St. Petersburg arrested 1,600 protesters. Referring to protests that have been largely invisible to TV watchers here, Putin reminded Russians that they want stability,

Evoking images of chaos, he reminded Russians of the street revolutions that took place in two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

But Professor Lieven said that Russians do not want to sacrifice all democratic freedoms in the name of stability.

“Even conservative Russians, or pro-Putin Russians, really don’t want to see  themselves as a version of Uzbekistan. The appearance of some degree of democracy is really rather psychologically important to them,’’ said Lieven.

Saturday’s demonstrations may serve as sign pointers - indicating which way Russia will go in the New Year.

You May Like

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Video Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid