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Despite Strengthening Opposition, Putin Favored to Claim Presidency Again

March 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Though term limits forced him to cede the post four years ago, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday said he's confident he'll once again be elected president in Sunday's vote and called massive protests by opposition groups "a good experience for Russia." Margaret Warner reports from Moscow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, Russia two days before voters go to the polls to elect a new president.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin voiced confidence today that he will be the victor, and he called the massive protests by opposition groups — quote — “a good experience for Russia.”

Margaret Warner has been in Moscow all week, and she filed this report.

MARGARET WARNER: Vladimir Putin is out on the stump making a pitch to get back his old job, president of Russia.

As the month-long official campaign season here closes in on Sunday’s election, the prime minister is favored to win, and big enough to avoid a runoff.

WOMAN (through translator): With all my soul, with all my heart, I am rooting for Putin.

Corruption in Russia is not a malignant tumor on an otherwise healthy body that can be severed, and then body can live and develop.Masha Lipman, Carnegie Moscow Center

MARGARET WARNER: Term limits forced him to cede the presidency four years ago to Dmitry Medvedev. But now he’s back in full presidential wannabe mode on state TV nonstop, as he crisscrosses the country.

And he’s everywhere here, too, on the banners of an opposition movement that’s sprouted in a few short months. Thousands formed a human chain in central Moscow last Sunday to call for Russia without Putin.

MIKE TOHONYUK, Russia: I believe that 12 years of Mr. Putin is too much for Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: Opposition stars mustered alongside ordinary citizens, young and old, in a defiant, yet jubilant display unthinkable just a few years ago.

Environmental activist Evgenia Chirikova has blossomed into an opposition leader.

EVGENIA CHIRIKOVA, environmental activist (through translator): It’s a clear cue for Mr. Putin that a crook and a thief has no place in the Kremlin, had enough humiliation.

MARGARET WARNER: For many, that humiliation was epitomized by Putin’s bid to return with a job-flipping announcement by Medvedev last September.

Simmering resentment let loose on the Internet. Then suspicions of widespread fraud in December’s parliamentary elections blew it open into the streets.

DMITRY MAKAROV, interpreter: We have to stop sitting in our apartments. We have to now do something for the political system.

MARGARET WARNER: We rode to Sunday’s rally with 25-year-old interpreter Dmitry Makarov. Never active before, he was stirred to action when social media spread videos of voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing.

DMITRY MAKAROV: Actually, so evident and so arrogant that we thought that, no, that’s not real, that couldn’t happen. But when your friends tell you that, when your friends upload the video to Facebook or they send a photo to Twitter, and you believe your friends, right?

MARGARET WARNER: Twelve years of Putin power have brought benefits to Makarov and many like him, as Russia’s freed-up economy rode atop sky-high oil and gas prices.

Now, he says, government needs to catch up.

DMITRY MAKAROV: We’re not satisfied with how the government works. They are too far behind us. Right? We want good service at a restaurant, but, at the same time, we want good service at a court.

MARGARET WARNER: But you don’t get that good service, he said, unless you pay bribes, and the same goes for lucrative government contracts.

DMITRY MAKAROV: We want laws that would protect a regular person.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you mean you want an end to this sort of privileged government class?

DMITRY MAKAROV: Absolutely. We don’t want privileged people.

MARGARET WARNER: Alleged sweetheart deals for Putin’s friends and family have been aired by bloggers like activist Alexei Navalny.

Veteran Putin opponents use older-style methods to publicize what they say is a deep and pervasive rot.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV, co-founder, Party of People’s Freedom: Watches. They have very, very expensive watches.

Many people understood that he’s working not so on Russia, but much more on his personal wealth and his personal good life.

MARGARET WARNER: Independent politician Vladimir Ryzhkov was muscled out of parliament after Putin ascended.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: Putin is not reformist. He’s a reactionary. He tries keep same corruption status quo in Russia. We want real system reforms.

MARGARET WARNER: Systemic reform of corruption can’t come under Putin, believes analyst Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

MASHA LIPMAN, analyst, Carnegie Moscow Center: Corruption in Russia is not a malignant tumor on an otherwise healthy body that can be severed, and then body can live and develop.

It’s actually the very texture of the Russian governance. People who are close to Putin, who constitute his elite can expect, can rely on the government cover-up if they do something unlawful.

MARGARET WARNER: Among those affected by that corruption, young professionals like 32-year-old Denis Fedorov. At an art opening this week, he said his American employer loses business because it’s banned by U.S. law from paying bribes.

DENIS FEDOROV, Russia: We cannot do some part of our work, we cannot get some contracts because, otherwise, we need to give money.

MARGARET WARNER: And this colors Fedorov’s feelings about Putin and his entire rule.

DENIS FEDOROV: What I feel about the government and Putin is that I feel ashamed.

MARGARET WARNER: Fedorov’s friend, Sergey Balandim, baby daughter in his arms, concedes the system is rigged. But he values the stability and opportunity Putin has brought.

SERGEY BALANDIM, Russia (through translator): I’m afraid of disorder. Any change of power threatens economic and political instability. In the elections, I will vote for Putin.

MARGARET WARNER: The gains of the Putin years ended the turbulence of the post-Soviet ’90s and the ruble’s collapse. Now many Russians are ready to vote their gratitude.

Far from cosmopolitan downtown Moscow is this gritty industrial district and Andrey Bondarenko’s auto repair shop. The former communist opened his own business after the Soviet Union collapsed. Those were hard early days, but Putin righted things.

ANDREY BONDARENKO, business owner (through translator): I support Vladimir Putin. He brought Russia up from its knees. We didn’t have enough food then, and now the store shelves are full.

MARGARET WARNER: The protesters are saying he’s too much like a czar.

ANDREY BONDARENKO (through translator): He’s not a czar. He’s a regular guy, a real common man. He’s a man of action.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel a lack of freedom?

ANDREY BONDARENKO (through translator): I absolutely do not feel anything like that. Working-class people have lots of freedom.

PAVEL ZENKOVICH, Vladimir Putin campaign manager: If you remember Russia in the ’90s, it was a country with a catastrophic situation in the economy.

MARGARET WARNER: Putin’s deputy campaign manager, Pavel Zenkovich, says millions of Russians like Bondarenko have long memories and know his candidate has delivered for them.

PAVEL ZENKOVICH: What people see in Putin, they see the guarantee that there will be an evolution, but there will be — that there will be stability. They see in Putin that they won’t lose their salaries, that the factories will be growing. No other candidate in this campaign can guarantee them. They see no alternative.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s just the point, the opposition says. There is no real alternative in Sunday’s election. The Kremlin’s election commission permitted only three old faces on the ballot, like the perennial communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, and just one new face, billionaire New Jersey nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

Despite his Western-style campaign, he hasn’t cracked 10 percent in the polls. Still, he sees an emerging coalition waiting to be led.

MIKHAIL PROKHOROV, Russian presidential candidate (through translator): A year ago, my nomination for presidency was not even possible. But after the parliamentary elections, the situation drastically changed. I will bring together a new political force to unify not only protesters, but those who want real change.

MARGARET WARNER: But Ryzhkov says this campaign is a phony competition, because the Kremlin stacked the deck.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: Putin selected opponents himself. So, it was selection before election. No one from real opposition was registered. All so-called oppositioners running for elections are more or less managed by Putin and his regime.

MARGARET WARNER: The integrity of the vote itself is being watched by civic groups and liberal parties who’ve trained volunteers as election observers.

KSENIA SOKOLOVA, Golos: During election day, a team of people, one or two persons, they travel from one polling station to another.

MARGARET WARNER:  Ksenia Sokolova’s independent group Golos also runs a website that’s compiling allegations of pre-ballot vote-rigging.

KSENIA SOKOLOVA: Here, they say that head of administration was promoting the candidate Mr. Putin, and he promised some presents for good votes.

MARGARET WARNER: Even the Russian government is installing Web cameras in 90,000 voting stations.

However that vote goes, Putin will retake the reins of a society that’s deeply split between old and new.

MASHA LIPMAN: Putin, of course, has his core constituency, people who are — do not live in big cities, people who still share the psychology of dependence, and they rely on the government.

MARGARET WARNER: On the other side, says analyst Lipman, is an urbanized middle class increasingly working in the private sector.

That split can be seen in Moscow itself. On the solid ice of a windswept lake near Soviet-era apartment blocks, Venyamin Batov was having little luck with the fish, but no matter.

VENYAMIN BATOV, pensioner (through translator): Everything changes to the better. Look at me. I’m a pensioner. I’m sitting here enjoying myself, and I get my pension on time, and I am happy.

MARGARET WARNER: His pal nearby isn’t quite so happy, but feels the protesters offer him nothing.

MAN (through translator): They are uncoordinated. There are not many people, and there are no leaders with a clear and realistic program.

MARGARET WARNER: A half-hour away, inside a one-time chocolate factory, is Rain TV, an Internet and small-scale cable channel that runs live coverage of protests and voices not heard on state-controlled television.

Chief producer and newscaster Renat Davletgildeev says the fact that his mostly 20-something staff came of age after the Soviet Union, but before Putin, makes Rain TV different in crucial ways.

RENAT DAVLETGILDEEV, chief producer, Rain TV (through translator): Honesty, freedom, a feeling of fresh air. Our journalists do not have these mental barriers of inner censorship that tell you what you should say and what you shouldn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: He says they also embrace different values than those celebrated by the Putin era.

RENAT DAVLETGILDEEV (through translator): For the last 10 years, society pursued a concept of happiness that meant a salary that is paid on time, you can go to Ikea once a week to buy a piece of furniture, and you own a Ford Focus car.

Now people want more. At the base of the pyramid, you have basic human needs. But at the top is this self-identification that people are now striving for, that their opinion should count.

MARGARET WARNER: If Putin wins handily on Sunday, how he handles this emerging new class could be crucial to his success.

JEFFREY BROWN: Our team in Moscow will be filing a special online report on Election Day. You will find that on our website at