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Putin Faces Broad Opposition as Thousands March in Moscow

June 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tens of thousands of protesters marched Tuesday through Moscow to demonstrate their discontent with newly installed Russian President Vladimir Putin. Margaret Warner discusses the protests and a Kremlin crackdown with Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council and Edward Lozansky of the Russia House, a D.C.-based consulting firm.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In Russia, tens of thousands marched in the capital city, despite the government’s efforts to stifle the protest movement.

MARGARET WARNER has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: The crowds in Moscow braved a drenching rain today to demonstrate their discontent with newly installed President Vladimir Putin.

Protest leaders put the crowd at 120,000. The police counted 20,000. The authorities granted approval for the demonstration, but, last week, Putin signed a new law imposing hefty fines on anyone causing damage during a rally. And on Monday, police raided the homes of key opposition figures and called in some for questioning. Protesters today remained defiant.

ALEXANDER POTKIN, Leader, Nationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration (through translator): These latest events, police searches, arrests, prosecutions based on fiction, all this will only stir up society and those who think about the future. People are tired of Putin. People want him to step down.

MARGARET WARNER: Large-scale protests began last December after Putin’s United Russia Party won parliamentary elections marred by fraud. They continued as Putin, then prime minister, pursued his return to the Russian presidency in March.

In an interview with the “NewsHour” during the campaign, opposition leader ALEXEI NAVALNY predicted a protracted struggle with Putin even after the election.

ALEXEI NAVALNY, Opposition Activist (through translator): One hundred thousand people in the streets of Moscow. Of course, he can try to foil the process by force.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you prepared to lead those protests as far as they need to go?

ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: Putin won the March election with 63 percent of the vote, without widespread allegations of fraud. But, last month, the day before he was inaugurated, police and protesters battled again in Moscow.

Today’s rally was peaceful, but some protesters said there might be worse to come.

And for more on al this, and where the Putin-protester standoff is headed, we turn to Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former president of Freedom House, which assists democratic movements in Russia and Eastern Europe, and Edward Lozansky, founder and president of Russia House, a consulting firm based in Washington.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Karatnycky, beginning with you, what sort of a challenge do these protesters pose to Vladimir Putin as he begins his six-year — next six-year term as president?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: Well, the first thing is that these are very massive, by Russian standards, protests.

Russia had a fairly quiescent period in the first two terms that Putin was in office, and really he has not confronted this level of dissatisfaction. The second challenge is that it’s occurring in the capital. And Putin well knows that wherever there have been substantial changes and political liberalizations in the region, they have been fought out in the capital cities.

So it seems to me that he is nervous about this new phenomenon, especially at a time when oil prices are lower than the ones that sustained huge budget surpluses and Russia faces a period where over time it will be whittling down its — you know, its hard currency assets and facing tougher economic decisions.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he has reason, Edward Lozansky, to be nervous about these?

EDWARD LOZANSKY, Russia House: I don’t think so, because still he enjoys high popularity. His ratings are still pretty high.

He is the most popular politician in Russia. And people who protest have an absolutely right to do that, but it’s a pretty mixed crow. If you look at the picture, you will see a lot of Russian, Soviet flags, communist flags, Nazis, all kind of anarchists.

MARGARET WARNER: As well as the young Twitterati.

EDWARD LOZANSKY: Right, yes. They have a perfect right to do it.

And, actually, some of the protests, which are peaceful, when they don’t throw Molotov cocktails, the police didn’t interfere. And some Putin (INAUDIBLE) Medvedev now, you can form a political party.

(CROSSTALK)

MARGARET WARNER: Medvedev, who was president, become prime minister.

EDWARD LOZANSKY: Yes. You need only 500 people to register a party. Russia is a pretty free country. And with all the problems that we see, it’s still a pretty free country.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Mr. Karatnycky, I don’t know if you want to respond to that point and also tell us…

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, I think that the problem — I do. I do want to respond, because I agree that — I agree with Ed Lozansky that Putin remains a popular politician and he is living off of this huge surplus that high gas and oil prices have created in the Russian public.

But more importantly, I think Putin is now — faces the first political challenge of his time, of his time in office. And equally importantly, the Russian media, Russian television, where 90 percent of Russians get most of their news, is really almost completely a parody of a free and open society.

Civil society is active. There’s space for political protest, sometimes suppressed, sometimes not. But the most important thing is that the media are highly manipulated. And the big challenge to Putin I think is from the Internet media. And this is — these are the two new phenomena, the discontent of the urban capital and large city middle classes and the sort of Internet-savvy youth culture that is now massing in these larger protests.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think they’re the seeds of difficulties for him in the growing Internet use in Russia?

I noticed today, for example, hackers suddenly disabled the Web site of this Dozhd TV, which is a private TV station that was — has been running protests even daily or live on their Web site.

EDWARD LOZANSKY: Well, of course Putin has to adjust his policy. He’s doing that. I already mentioned it.

And of course it will be not as easy for him to run the country as it was in the last 12 years. Still, Russia enjoys pretty good economic position right now, actually, as a matter of fact, better than the United States.

If you look at the GDP to debt, in the United States, it’s 110 percent, in Russia only 10 percent. I mean GDP ratio to economy. Unemployment in Russia, only 5.8 percent. So, he’s doing pretty well.

I think he will serve his term. Now, what’s important for opposition, if they really want to make a change and make impact, they have to unite, because, as I told you, there’s a pretty mixed crowd. There are many people who I don’t want to be associated with, the communists definitely, Nazis, all that.

And all those big numbers are not because so many of those pro-Western what they call lean to the West democrats. Majority — I don’t know, I can’t say exact numbers, but a lot of them you can see from the flags are not the people you want to deal with.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Karatnycky, what do these protesters want now? I can understand all the protests before the election or between the parliamentary and presidential election, but, realistically, what are they asking for and is it realistic at all?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, fundamentally, they are trying to deny Putin his legitimacy.

They are calling for new parliamentary elections. They’re reviving the calls of the earlier protests. They’re calling for him to step down because they consider him to be illegitimate. Now, there is a question about whether or not he has a mandate.

I think Ed Lozansky was absolutely right that Putin still remains, has high degrees of popularity. But the real issue for Putin is that Putin is showing that he is taking this movement very seriously. The legislative changes, imposing high fines for protests, the harassment of some of the leaders of a fairly disparate movement is helping in a sense to structure the opposition.

He is creating heroes in the opposition by harassing the people like Navalny and people like Udaltsov and people — the liberals and others who were rounded up, the very disparate group of the five leaders. So, in a sense, by taking sharper measures against the opposition, he is giving the opposition confidence that it is on the right track, that it is a serious force that he needs to reckon with.

And in a sense, that’s the boomerang. That’s the unintended consequence of his tougher policies against protests.

MARGARET WARNER: Back to Mr. Lozansky.

One, do you agree that ironically this helped sort of raise the profile of these protesters? But, two, what alternative does Putin have?

EDWARD LOZANSKY: Well, I think he has to watch what is going on. He has all the information, more information that we have. And I think a lot of — many things that the opposition demands are right, and sometimes he has to yield.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, as a practical matter, what do you mean he has to yield? Do you think he really does need to do something to open up the political space somehow?

EDWARD LOZANSKY: But it is open.

It used to be when — to form a party, you needed 50,000 people. Of course, it’s very difficult to get 50,000 people united on the same ideas. Now it’s only 500 people. So let them have at least one party which can clearly say what they want.

So far, we don’t see it. So far, we see only, get rid of Putin. But let’s say they succeeded. And the next morning, what will happen? There will be disaster, chaos. And the majority of Russian people, they still know from history 1917, when intellectuals and pro-Western democracy folks, they got rid of the czar and we got Lenin and Bolsheviks for 70 years.

MARGARET WARNER: And we’re going to have to leave it there.

Edward Lozansky and Adrian Karatnycky, thank you both.