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But, as FRONTLINE/World correspondent Victoria Gamburg discovers in Russia, Putin has a new plan -- to give up the presidency but still hold on to power.
While the throngs of young supporters on hand to witness Putin announce his new plan seem wildly enthusiastic at the prospect, Gamburg wonders if those outside the gaze of Russian state television are buying the Kremlin’s message.
She follows a radio reporter friend named Saken as he covers a conference of Putin’s most vocal opponents -- an unlikely coalition of democrats, radicals and neo-Communists. They call themselves “Other Russia” and are united mainly by their disdain for Putin.
“We’re not fighting to win elections now. We’re fighting to have elections,” says Garry Kasparov, the emerging face of Other Russia. Once the world’s greatest chess champion, Kasparov is now dedicating his life to bringing down Putin. At the close of the convention, Other Russia nominates Kasparov to be its first presidential candidate.
As one of several opposition candidates, Kasparov has also become a political target. Outside the conference hall, a crowd of young people has gathered to heckle him.
“We need Putin’s Russia,” they shout. “Kasparov, go back to America!”
Saken says the children have each been paid $4 by Kremlin-sponsored organizers to join the protest.
Despite the Kremlin’s tactics, Kasparov tries to take his campaign to the people, on the radio station Echo of Moscow’s program “Counterpunch.” Echo of Moscow is the last remaining media outlet that allows opposition leaders on the air.
“It’s the last voice … of all forces which are fighting the regime,” says Kasparov.
The problem is that only 2 percent of Russians listen to Echo, and Kasparov claims opposition leaders are blacklisted almost everywhere else.
When it comes to network television, many believe the Kremlin has the last word in deciding who gets on air. Vladimir Posner has worked for state television in Russia since the Soviet era and hosts one of Russia’s last live opinion programs. Off the air, he talks candidly with Gamburg about Putin’s means of remaining in power, but when the cameras start rolling, controversial opinions vanish. Everything seems to come from a very Kremlin-friendly point of view.
“Today, there is a golden boy in Russia, and that golden boy is Putin,” Posner tells Gamburg. “As long as he’s going to be golden, opposition, well, it’ll be there, it’ll make noise, but it’s not going to be able to get a lot of votes.”
Outside, the show’s audience says that they know little about the opinions of opposition leaders, but that is all right with them.
“Kasparov is not my type. I don’t mind that I don’t see him on TV,” one woman says.
According to Posner, an avid follower of public opinion polls, the overwhelming majority of the country just does not care about freedom of speech.
So while Putin’s Russia is not the democracy many in the West hoped for, most Russians seem to prefer it to the hardships after Communism. And, in this election year, the Kremlin wants to make sure it stays that way.
To see how the process works, Gamburg travels on a midnight bus out of Moscow to a Kremlin-sponsored youth camp 300 kilometers away, where campers learn to demonize the Kremlin’s enemies. Her guide shows her to a field where youth from all over Russia have gathered for morning exercises and dancing to pop tunes. They are all part of a youth group called “Nashi,” which means “our people.”
It all seems quite innocent, but the Kremlin takes it very seriously. Nashi was founded a few years earlier, out of a fear that young people might be tempted by the opposition. On the main campground passageway, visitors
“These people are the fascists of our country. They betrayed Russia,” Gamburg’s guide tells her.
Some consider Nashi a throwback to Soviet youth leagues, complete with military training and mass weddings. Nashi’s founder even encourages newlyweds to fix Russia’s population problem by boarding a raft full of tents to make babies right away.
“We’re building the future of a great Russia. That’s our main goal,” one boy says. “We’re all patriots here.”
Back in Moscow, as the fall election season heats up, well-trained Nashi members have become a force in the streets, intimidating the Kremlin’s political opponents and flying the flag whenever called upon.
Opposition politicians are also finding it increasingly difficult to get on the presidential ballot. Every week, it seems, the Kremlin puts up new roadblocks, and, one by one, democratic hopefuls are eliminated.
Gamburg watches as Kasparov grows increasingly desperate, playing a complicated game with the Kremlin and the media in an attempt to raise his coalition’s profile. During a protest march, his plan pays off. He’s arrested.
“When the government is bringing thousands and thousands of special police troops from all over the country and literally introducing martial law in the center of Moscow, that’s a story,” Kasparov says.
The next day, his supporters plan another march in St. Petersburg. On her way to the protestors’ headquarters, Gamburg drives by thousands of riot police taking up positions all over downtown.
At the headquarters, Kasparov’s representative holds a press conference to draw attention to the Kremlin’s tactics. The strategy seems to be working: There are as many journalists there as marchers.
As the marchers make their way to the city center, the police move into position. Suddenly, a group of young men appear, holding up the flag of the banned national Bolshevik party. Seeing the flag, the police move in.
“Arrest everybody,” they say.
March organizers suspect that the “Bolsheviks” were planted by the police to give them an excuse to crack down on Kasparov’s group.
The confrontation was covered on the evening news, just as Kasparov had hoped, but it did not matter. A short time later, the Kremlin officially ended Kasparov’s presidential bid, keeping him off the ballot on a technicality.
“We can disagree whether it’s an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship. But it’s a regime that is undemocratic. Nobody argues that,” Kasparov says. “But Russia, I don’t think, yet has made its final choice.”
Toward the end of Gamburg’s time in Russia, President Putin revealed the latest part of his plan: He chose a young protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, to run as his successor. The next day, Medvedev made his first announcement -- Putin would be his prime minister.
“The only way to bring our plan to life is to work with our plan’s author, Vladimir Putin,” Medvedev says.
We see that Putin is a true post-Soviet style leader. He is not a saint. He brings with him the baggage of a former KGB man. It's inevitable. It is humanly impossible for him to escape temptations, mistakes and wrong decisions. But, at least, he is fundamentally a different kind of leader (compared to all his Soviet predecessors).
Perfecting the leadership of Russia is a process with growing pains. Putin's actions may lack democratic purity, but, recalling history, we should be grateful that his opponents are not in labor camps and are free to speak, if only they could scramble a few followers, who cared to listen.
70.2 % elected Putin's choice and are looking forward to Putin's plan. Why do Russian people like a strong leader? Excellent question. But the answer is of historic proportions. And, obviously, couldn't have been planned by producers of "Putin's plan".
However, it would be a great story... It would take us 1,020 years back, to 988. In my view, it is definitely for another time. For another movie.
1. Remarkable appearance of a woman, who says that Speaker
2. Appearance of young woman journalist, in a bus, while returning from "Nashi" camp, when she says: "It is frightening. There's a feeling that it is something like a cult... I don't judge ("criticize") them. Yes I can understand them, though - for myself, such path I would not choose... But I'm not from Putin's generation, I'm from the Yeltsin's generation" (like I am, personally). This attitude - to be different but not to judge them - is typical for intelligent people today. I voted for Medvedev.
I had a chance to work on projects and seeing in the news V.Putin talking about these projects, and my heart was always compassionate, I couldn't criticize him. For his weight is heavy, and, if it can be said, weight is enormous. (And Vladimir Posner, and many Russians, may feel like this). Although I, personally, can not agree with established system.
Initially, Putin just continued the strategy of "oligarchs's" (several rich and powerful owners), and it included, among other terms, rude manipulating of the public opinion, which commenced since 1996 elections. But since 2003 he had actually made a State stronger in bargaining with oligarchs (at the high price he paid). Now moral qualities of his power may seem very poor. But - we have to admit - it always takes time, years and decades, for the complete new configuration (which still carries liberty) to begin to work.
I think that the story you've told provides an excellent insight into characteristics of the Putin's system in this transfer period. And the story teaches us, that suppressing the opposition is counterproductive for the spirit of country.
Thank you again, with all my appreciation and very best wishes.
Why should Putin need or want to kill democracy? He, of all the leaders in the world, doesn't have any motive. He is widely loved, rightly or wrongly. Simple logic dictates that he has nothing to gain by destroying democracy. And yet, we are presented with the case that he is evil, that he is the enemy of democracy. The "evidence" is the opinions of those who hate him for personal reasons, and whose only goal is to "take him down", not to build Russia up.
The real story here was why it is that Russians love a strong man, what it is about their culture that leads them to undervalue free speech. Why did the TV producer note that people just do not care about free speech? What drives this attitude in Russian culture?
That was the story, and it was missed because of the intellectually corrupt agenda of those who wanted to create a story of the big evil man in Russia who is cheating everybody. In short, the cult of personality may be destroying democracy in Russia, but it also destroyed the value of this documentary.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Do the Bolsheviks really want to turn the clock back and have another Stalin? Most Russians are horrified at the thought, but some people, such as pensioners, had an easier life in those times. The Russians have come a long way in 18 years since the end of Soviet rule. Putin has brought economic stability and the beginnings of several voices in democracy. Many in Russian want to support another party, but the party with a thoughtful platform has not emerged. It seems the most rational politicians join Putin's party and for now that is progress.
People are protesting in the streets. There are many youth groups, not just the Nashi, who come to Moscow and carry political banners. None are getting killed.
I was in Moscow during the Fall elections and saw the Nashi and other groups marching around the cold Moscow streets. Some had some heated yelling between them. There were plenty of policemen too. Given Russia's history, a prudent person might leave the streets, but nothing terrible happened. Kasparov has his point that Russia needs more viewpoints, and his arrest in the streets only gave him more attention in Russia. The newspapers do cover his activities.
I visited Red Square two days after the election only to find it closed for the Nashi rally concert. It is a little spooky to see so many young people all so enthusiastic about their country and President. It reminded me of a Young Republican rally!
I liked this documentary very much, it gave a real feeling of being there in Russia. I would only caution that, as in the Soviet era, the detractors always found an easy audience with the foreign press, irregardless of their support in their own country.
In any case, the translation was diluted for the audience, which I believe is a major blunder by the editorial staff at PBS/Frontline.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond: