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.

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