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Vote-Fraud Protests Could Mean ‘Unpalatable Dilemma’ for Kremlin

December 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now, in Russia, an embattled Vladimir Putin turns on the United States.

The war of words has spread from Russia’s streets to the world stage, where Vladimir Putin forcefully criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today for meddling in Russia’s internal politics. The Russian prime minister claimed the U.S. was encouraging dissenters who’ve denounced Sunday’s parliamentary elections as rigged in favor of Putin’s party, United Russia.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian prime minister (through translator): I have looked at the first reaction of our American partners. And, straight away, the secretary of state assessed the elections as dishonest and unfair. She set the tone for some of our personalities inside the country and gave them a signal, and they heard this signal. And, with support from the State Department, they started active work.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Sunday’s voting, Putin’s party came in first, though it actually lost ground from past elections. Polling place observers witnessed ballot box stuffing and manipulation of vote counts.

The next day, in Germany, Clinton spoke out forcefully against the election process.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Concerning Russia, you know, we’re watching the election results with great interest. And we do have serious concerns about the conduct of the elections. We think that the preliminary report just issued by the OSCE international mission raised a number of questions about the conduct of the elections.

JEFFREY BROWN: Clinton reiterated that position at a NATO meeting in Brussels today, where the Russians and the alliance were also discussing contentious plans for a NATO missile defense shield in Europe.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, demonstrations have defied a heavy police presence this week to denounce the election results. The rallying cry was “Russia without Putin.” And there’s little doubt he’s the main target.

ILYA PONOMARYOV, Just Russia Party (through translator): We are going to protest using peaceful means until a decision is taken to recount the votes. We don’t recognize these authorities. We don’t recognize the election results, and we will demand their change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Author Leon Aron said it’s been a fast decline in popularity for Putin.

LEON ARON, American Enterprise Institute: The problem is that Putin tied his political fate, to a large extent, to United Russia, that is, the party that’s the ruling party, the party of power, that is known in Russia as a party of thieves and swindlers.

It could reach a point where people’s dignity is insulted to such an extent that, even if the regime begins repression, that only increases the amount of resistance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Authorities have arrested hundreds of protesters, seeking to douse the demonstrations. Two top opposition figures were sentenced to 15-day jail terms.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has backed up his predecessor and benefactor Putin. It was Putin who handpicked then Prime Minister Medvedev for the presidency in 2008, when he could not run for a third term. Putin took the premier’s job. In September, Medvedev announced what amounted to another swap, with Putin running for president in elections next March, with Medvedev as his prime minister.

Medvedev spoke in Prague today:

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, Russian president (through translator): Elections bring definitive results which some may like and some may not. I think the political structure that has now emerged as a result of the elections reflects the preferences of our citizens. For me, at least the election results didn’t come as a surprise. It is obvious that our Russian society is becoming more competitive and is far from being dominated by one party.

JEFFREY BROWN: The last surviving leader of a one-party era, Mikhail Gorbachev, on Monday denounced the election process and said he had little confidence that the present leadership had real reforms in mind.

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, former president of Soviet Union (through translator): I don’t believe that this team will assume responsibility and offer us a plan of real modernization of all political structures, of the political base, and create conditions for people to move on.

JEFFREY BROWN: This week’s events may be a breaking point with lasting impact, says Leon Aron.

LEON ARON: The casualness of this kind of disdain for people’s opinion, and then followed up by this clearly fraudulent election in many respects, made — made people angry. I mean, there’s no other way to put it.

Looking forward to the March presidential election, which actually matters to the Russians more than the essentially meaningless parliamentary election — they know where the country is ruled from, and that is the Kremlin — the regime may find itself on the horns of a very unpalatable dilemma. Either you truly turn from like a soft authoritarian regime to truly repressive measures — you have thousands of people in the street, you can’t control them, all sorts of things may lead to violence — or you retreat.

And, in that case, you look weak, and nobody knows where that retreat will end. So this is something, this is the dilemma that Putin and his advisers, I’m sure, even as we speak, are trying to avoid.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were no signs of protests today in Moscow, but opposition members are organizing nationwide demonstrations for Saturday, and hope to attract tens of thousands to the gates of the Kremlin.