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What next for Mr Putin?

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Robin Lustig | 09:23 UK time, Friday, 9 December 2011

Perhaps I should start with a statement of the blindingly obvious: Russia is not Egypt.

Yes, there were thousands of anti-government protesters out on the streets of the capital this week. And yes, the security forces responded with great brutality. And yes again, online social networks played an important role in galvanising the protests and giving a voice to the protesters.

But no, an autocrat is not about to be toppled. And no, Vladimir Putin is not Hosni Mubarak. So I suspect any references to a "Russian spring" (in December, for goodness sake?) should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

Let's rewind a few days. Last weekend, Russian voters went to the polls to choose a new parliament. This is not an event that normally excites much interest, because there is rarely any doubt about who is likely to win.

But this time was different. It was the first test of public opinion since Vladimir Putin (currently prime minister) and Dmitri Medvedev (currently president) announced that they intend to repeat their little trick of four years ago and swap jobs. (It's not an exact repeat, in fact, because four years ago, Mr Medvedev was a mere deputy prime minister. But the principle remains the same.)

It seems that Russian voters - or at least some of them - object to being treated as irrelevant by-standers at election time. Last month, there was an embarrassing episode when Mr Putin was booed at a martial arts contest where he tried to make a speech. These things shouldn't happen in what the Russians call their "managed democracy".

Then, in the run-up to last weekend's parliamentary elections, opposition groups started a campaign to persuade voters to vote for any party except Mr Putin's United Russia.

When the results were declared, they showed a substantial drop in support for United Russia. What's more, according to independent election monitoring groups and foreign observers, the party would have done far, far worse had there not been widespread vote-rigging and fraud.

That's why the protesters took to the streets. It's also why they intend to do the same thing this weekend, after an online campaign that is reported to have gained tens of thousands of supporters.

What does it all mean? Well, it's easier to suggest what it doesn't mean, because no Russian analyst to whom I have spoken this week believes that Mr Putin will not be re-elected as president next March. (Apologies for the double negatives: what I mean is that every Russian analyst to whom I have spoken believes that Mr Putin will be re-elected next March.)

Millions of Russians remember the chaotic days of the Yeltsin era, and the financial melt-down which left the vast majority struggling to make ends meet, while a handful of oligarchs snapped up State enterprises and turned themselves overnight into billionaires. There is very little appetite to return to that.

Vladimir Putin has meticulously cultivated an image as a strong leader (remember those pictures of him bare-chested?) while benefiting politically from high oil and gas prices, which have sent billions of dollars cascading into the Kremlin exchequer. It all goes down well in a country with a long tradition of strong leaders.

But something did shift this week. After too many years of cronyism, corruption and inefficiency, young, educated Russians seem to have decided they want something better. The chant of the protesters was "Russia without Putin".

Did they take their cue from the Arab spring protesters in Tunisia and Egypt? Not consciously, perhaps, but 2011 has become the year of street protests - all the way from the capitals of the Arab world to the Occupy movements of New York, London and many other major cities.

It's interesting, isn't it, how in an increasingly virtual, digitised world, lived more and more on line and on screen, the most potent form of political action once again is the mass protest on the streets and in the squares of the world's major cities.

For now, Vladimir Putin seems determined to blame Washington for his troubles. Hillary Clinton has been rude about the conduct of the elections; and in return, Mr Putin has accused the US of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence Russian politics.

So far, so predictable. Far less predictable is how the anti-Putin protesters will respond when the security forces try to put an end to their demonstrations.

On your list of things to watch out for in the coming year - the economy, the euro, the Olympics and the US presidential election - you can now add one more item: Russia.


  • Comment number 1.

    Has Russia ever had an election that was not rigged? There is a generational shift and the younger generations do not see maintaining of the traditional models is of much benefit to them or their futures. They are correct in that thinking but with the consolidation of both power and wealth in most political systems the change they want will be difficult to accomplish. How else can this type of discontent be expressed except in mass. It is difficult to refute thousands people standing in a public square. The major factor in national change is the willingness or unwillingness of the police and armed forces to violently remove such protest. As governments raise taxes and cut services to satisfy the unpunished bankers that caused this worldwide crisis it is difficult for politicians to plea that they represent the interest of the people. The raising generations would like a future..not an unreasonable request.

  • Comment number 2.

    US Senator John McCain has also irritated the Russians, tweeting a link to an article about Russia to his 1.7m followers, & adding: "Dear Vlad, the Arab Spring is coming to a neighbourhood near you". Talk about sophisticated diplomacy!
    Mr Putin, who plans to return as president next year, has frequently claimed that his political opponents are traitors, financed from abroad. He has described them as "jackals" waiting outside foreign embassies for handouts, and just before last weekend's elections he said that foreign governments wanting to influence Russian politics would be unsuccessful because "Judas is not the most popular figure among our people".
    Protests are planned in 78 Russian towns & cities - far the biggest of which is Moscow. About 50,000 police and 2,000 paramilitary troops are patrolling the city's streets, backed by water cannons.
    The Mayor's office asked the organisers to move the meeting from Revolution Square, near the Kremlin, to a different location, but it was unclear if they would agree. Authorities say a maximum of 300 people can protest if the rally is on Revolution Square, and if more attend, they will be arrested. By yesterday, 30,000 had signalled their intention to attend on a FACEBOOK, and 15,000 more signed up to a similar group on the Russian social network Vkontakte (which has not been shutdown).
    Mr Putin said that if people wanted to "act within the law" then they should be allowed to express their opinions, but said most Russians were not in favour of protests. He said we know that in our country, people do not want events to go the same way as they did in Kyrgyzstan, or in the recent past in Ukraine. Nobody wants chaos.

  • Comment number 3.

    Vladimir Putin has launched an extraordinary attack on the US, blaming the Americans for twittering discontent. It wouldn't be the first time that US intruded in foreign affairs with colorful twittering.
    Thousands are signing up on Facebook for a co-ordinated series of protests planned tomorrow; Putin said US had spent "hundreds of millions of dollars" trying to influence the outcome of the elections. He singled out Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming that she "gave a signal" to Russia's opposition leaders by describing the election as "rigged". Discontents heard this signal and with the support of the US State Department began to undercut. Clinton, who had said Russian voters deserved an investigation into allegations of fraud - Mr. Putin's United Russia party received 49% vote - also said her criticism had been "well-founded". International observers have said the poll was rigged in Mr Putin's party's favour. This is pretty much a foul accusation without facts to support the contention.
    US & Russia are not allies, as are US and Bahrain. The spat over the elections, as well as disagreements over missile defence, are threatening to derail the "reset" relations between Russia and US.

  • Comment number 4.

    -United Russia – 49.67%
    -the Communist Party – 19.15%
    -Just Russia – 13.16%
    -the Liberal Democratic Party – 11.67%
    -Yabloko – 3.21%, and
    -two small parties getting under 1% each.
    Under Russian electoral laws, Duma seats are proportionally distributed to parties getting at least 7% of the vote. Because several didn’t qualify, United Russia maintains a ruling majority. Nonetheless, President Medvedev expressed WILLINGNESS to have coalition partners, saying:
    “We will have to take into account the more complex configuration of the Duma and for some issues we will have to join coalition bloc agreements.”
    Ballots were cast in 94,000 domestic polling stations across Russia and about 370 overseas locations in over 140 foreign countries.
    Officials said irregularities disqualified 1% of electoral ballots (near normal range for all elections).

  • Comment number 5.

    Under Putin, RUSSIA'S BACK - proud & assertive. It’s not about to roll over for America, especially in Eurasia. Meanwhile WH seems ready to foster new Cold War. This time it’s for much greater stakes - far greater threats to world peace.
    Instead of reporting it like it is (just the facts please) US's media blames "fraud".
    In the 1930s, Roosevelt wanted war with Germany & Japan; he needed war to end the Great Depression & push US global dominance. Is Obama following suit?
    Responsible major media journalism has been lost in America. There seems an inclination to report what govt or moguls want reported while twittering social sites willingly pick up the colourful excitement.

  • Comment number 6.

    a very advanced analysis/comment by mr Lustig. a high school student could have written this

  • Comment number 7.

    Russia has had a previous ´Peasant Revolt´--I don´t expect any truthful comments from either America or Feudal based European ´democracies´ --If ´push comes to shove´

    The Arab Spring comes to mind.


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