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In Russia, ‘No Romantic Notion of Revolution’ Before Election

February 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Russian protesters formed a human chain in Moscow Sunday to register their opposition toward Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his bid to become president again. Margaret Warner reports on the upcoming election as reports emerge of an alleged assassination plot and pressure mounts on Russia to change its policy toward Syria.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to a presidential election in a very different part of the world.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Russians go to the polls Sunday to choose their next president. And Current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hopes they will return him to his old job.

But tens of thousands of protesters have something different in mind. They formed a human chain on a main road circling the Kremlin in central Moscow yesterday to register their opposition. They’re part of a movement ignited last December after alleged fraud in parliamentary elections.

The 59-year-old prime minister fired back today, publishing a lengthy manifesto in a Moscow paper, warning the West and other powers not to take military action against Syria and Iran, and accusing the U.S. of meddling in the politics of Russia and its neighbors.

And a state-run television station reported today that a joint Russian-Ukrainian operation had captured men reportedly plotting to assassinate Putin after next Sunday’s election. The men are allegedly Chechen separatists.

Margaret Warner is in Moscow covering the election.

Margaret, good to have you with us.

Tell us more about this reported assassination plot.

MARGARET WARNER: Ray, it was very strange to watch this report on state-controlled television out of Odessa in Ukraine centering on an apartment complex where they said they nabbed several men involved in this bomb plot against Vladimir Putin.

Two of the men in different scenes were paraded before the cameras and confessing to having been sent to do this deed by this Chechen terrorist leader who’s claimed responsibility for some successful bombings here in Moscow the last couple of years.

Now, there were immediately comments on the Web and elsewhere about how the videotaped confessions looked a little fakey. That’s in the eye of the beholder. But, certainly, as commentators noted, the timing was convenient. These men were supposedly arrested two or three weeks ago, yet announced today, six days before the election.

And as you may recall, Putin really first made his reputation on the suppressing, the battle against the Chechen terrorist movement, the Chechen separatist movement starting in the early ’90s. And it also reinforces his theme, his sort of strong man message in this campaign, which is, I’m the only person standing between Russia and the chaos of the ’90s.

RAY SUAREZ: As the situation worsens in Syria and pressure mounts on Russia to drop its support for the Assad regime, does Putin show any sign of backing down or changing Russia’s policy?

MARGARET WARNER: No, Ray, absolutely not, as Vladimir Putin made clear in this manifesto, this screed that he published today, part of a series he’s been doing during the campaign.

He said, you know, it was completely inappropriate for anyone to intervene militarily in Syria. He said that the West, the United States and other countries had supported other movements in the Arab Spring not out of humanitarian reasons, but playing power politics globally.

And he drove home again another campaign theme of his, which is, I’m the strong man standing up for a strong Russia against its enemies, not only internal, but external, namely, the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Can the former president who hopes to be president again pursue the Russian equivalent of a Rose Garden strategy? Can he hang back? Can he run on his reputation and the stature of his office? Or has the opposition forced him to run a real presidential campaign?

MARGARET WARNER: The opposition has definitely forced him to run a real presidential campaign, Ray.

From the time they got out last December, after the fraud-riddled parliamentary elections of early December, Vladimir Putin’s aura of invincibility and of incredible popularity has been undermined. And Kremlin insiders are worried about that, not that they really think he’s going to lose, but the more that aura is chipped away, the more it will affect or undermine his ability to govern in the way he has in the past.

And so he is out there running. Every day, you see him on the news. He’s out there visiting some other far-flung portion of Russia, part of Russia. He’s writing all these long editorials. He appeared at a huge pro-Putin rally here in Moscow last week.

And he wants, if possible, to win the election next Sunday on the first round, that is, to get over 50 percent.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you have seen some of that campaign, gotten a feel for the pre-election atmosphere, seen some of the street demonstrations.

You were also in Egypt and Bahrain when they had their uprisings. Does Russia feel like it’s on the verge of a big change too, the way those countries did?

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, is this the Russian Arab spring?

That is a question people are talking about here. And the answer is, of course, yes and no. Yes, this has been prompted by an urban middle class yearning now for respect, to be treated respectfully in the political sphere, and also for an end to corruption, which benefits the elite and disadvantages those not really well-connected.

But, Ray, I don’t sense the same level of anger and desperation that I did certainly in some crowds in Egypt, who really felt just so beaten down, so demeaned in every way by the Mubarak regime. People here in Russia know that, economically, they are so much better off than they were 12 years ago, when Putin came to power. They don’t want to throw that away. They have a much better life than they ever had before.

And, also, I have to say that I don’t sense a — there’s no romantic notion of revolution here. This is a people that lived through what the communist revolution brought and the ruin it ultimately brought. And they are not in love with that idea.

There is a certain yearning for stability that I think prevails at the same time.

RAY SUAREZ: Great to talk to you.

That’s our Margaret Warner.

We look forward to your next stories, where you will be reporting from an opposition campaign event and on those who support Vladimir Putin. Thanks for joining us.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Ray.