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Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Are protests loosening Putin's grip on power?


NEW YORK — Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,

No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:

She stands alone, unique — In Russia, one can only believe.

Thus wrote Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (1803-1873) considered one of the last three great Romantic poets in Russia. Perhaps Prime Minister Vladimir Putin should have remembered those words, when he dismissed the reaction of the Russian people to the last parliamentarian elections in the country, which the people widely considered to have been rigged.

Although Russia under Putin, and his designated successor President Dmitry Medvedev, has achieved progress in several areas — incomes were raised, there were more consumer goods available and people were free to travel — the tens of thousands of people demonstrating in the street were doing so against what they rightly believe was Putin's intentions to remain indefinitely in power through rigged elections.

People were also reacting to what they saw as widespread corruption under Putin. Over the past decade, one in six businessmen in Russia has been prosecuted for an alleged economic crime. In addition, people feel that the state has failed to provide ordinary citizens adequate health care, good education, security and justice.

In Russia, words and symbols often count more than reality. And Putin has repeatedly tried to use symbols to gather support for his policies. One of those symbols has been the use of Russia as an isolated and besieged fortress surrounded by powerful enemies. One of the most powerful enemies was the United States through its anti-missile system, which he portrayed as an existential threat to Russia, a point of view that was strengthened by Medvedev's bellicose statements.

Two important factors seem to have been the trigger that led to people's fury. One was the acknowledgment by Putin that his job swap with Medvedev had been planned long ago, and the other, the obviously manipulated elections. Interestingly, the popular demonstrations against Putin and the government are taking place not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also in smaller cities around the country.

Putin tried to dismiss the significance of the demonstrators saying that they lacked a program, a leader and specific demands. He may have misinterpreted them. People were clear in asking for the removal of Vladimir Churov, head of the electoral commission, the release of imprisoned political activists, registration of all political parties and clean elections. In addition, some among the demonstrators seem to have special clout.

One of them is Alexei Navalny, a popular blogger who has social networking to confront Putin and Medvedev's power. Navalny acquired notoriety when, as a response to being asked about his opinion of the United Russia party, he said: "I think very poorly of United Russia. United Russia is the party of corruption, the party of crooks and thieves."

Few words resonated as much among protesting Russians as these two last nouns, with ample reason. According to a recent article in the New Yorker magazine, Russia is one of the few countries in the world to slip consistently in Transparency International's annual rankings of corrupt countries. Last October Medvedev stated that a trillion rubles — roughly $33 billion (equivalent to 3 percent of the country's GDP) disappears annually on government contracts.

In the meantime, the situation in Russia continues to deteriorate. Inflation and unemployment are close to 8 percent, and there is low purchasing power and increased capital flight. In addition, while the economy grew by a yearly average of around 7 percent between 2000 and 2007, it has declined since then and it is estimated that it will have grown by 4 percent at the end of 2011. Russia is also beset by high rates of crime and widespread unemployment.

Nobody can predict where the present demonstrations against the government will take Russians. So far, the government has made only minor moves as a response. One of them was making Vladislav Surkov, who had been deputy chief of the presidential administration and a man with wide ranging powers, deputy prime minister in charge of economic modernization But opposition forces believe that proposed reforms are too little too late.

Proud of their past, Russians are also eager to be able to express freely their political wishes. It is highly improbable that Putin will relinquish his grip on power and allow for a repeat of the parliamentary elections. However, it was also considered unlikely a year ago that the Arab Spring would engulf the Arab world as a ball of fire.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.


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