Putin hits the open Russian road to woo his far-flung countrymen
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is touring Russia's Far East in a bright yellow Lada, making daily headlines ahead of what appears to be his plan to run for the presidency in 2012.
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Some experts dismiss Medvedev's move, arguing that what appear to be recurring differences between Putin and the president are often just political smoke-and-mirrors, mostly aimed at distracting domestic opponents and blunting international criticism.Skip to next paragraph
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"In the Putin-Medvedev tandem, Medvedev played a special role from the beginning, by courting a more liberal constituency, reaching out to a different electorate, making nice gestures," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Examples include starting up his own LiveJournal blog to reach out to a more youthful audience, tangling with Putin over the direction of Russian democracy in a public meeting, and granting his first-ever presidential interview to the staunchly oppositionist newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Mr. Petrov says that the Khimki Forest decision is another "good cop" gesture that will likely be rescinded later.
"It's just the same game," he says. "In a couple of months, when they finish the 'review' and decide to go ahead with the project, it is hoped that the controversy will have died down."
Meanwhile, the "bad cop" of the tandem lashed out at the protesters who have held recurring rallies in support of Article 31 of Russia's 1993 Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to free assembly. Another is slated for Tuesday. The "31" movement has been gaining traction in recent months among frustrated liberals who hope to dramatize what they see as the steady erosion of civic rights in Russia by taking to the streets.
They habitually gather in Moscow's downtown Triumph Square, which features a huge statue of radical Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, because it is associated with Soviet-era unsanctioned public poetry readings and prodemocracy dissident meetings.
Putin told Kommersant that protesters were acting provocatively by insisting on meeting on Triumph Square, for which they are never granted permits, instead of the often remote locations offered to them.
"If you get [permission], you go and march," Putin said. "If you don't, you have no right to. Go without permission, and you will be hit on the head with [police] nightsticks. That's all there is to it."
But former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who was arrested along with 80 others at another Moscow rally last week, alleges that authorities are openly flouting the law.
"Putin claims to have a law degree, but he must have been a very poor student," he says. "The Constitution stipulates that Russian people have the right to assemble peacefully without any permission. Under the law, we are obliged to inform the authorities of our intentions. The constant use of police force against peaceful and lawful demonstrators is illegal."
Earlier this month, Moscow authorities fenced-off Triumph Square, reportedly due to construction of an underground parking garage. Mr. Nemtsov says it's part of an ongoing campaign to deny protesters access to the deeply symbolic place, but he insists Tuesday's rally will go ahead as planned.