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Russians perplexed by Putin's snub of G8. Is it because of protests? Obama?

President Vladimir Putin said he is 'too busy' to attend the G8 summit. But Russians say he's either on edge about recent protests or intends to throw a wrench in the US-Russia 'reset.'

By Correspondent / May 14, 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, May 11.

Alexei Druzhinin/Government Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP

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Moscow

It's part Occupy Wall Street, part Hyde Park Corner, and entirely something new for Russia.

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The little encampment spontaneously created a week ago by a few hundred mostly young activists in a downtown Moscow park, near the Chistye Prudi metro station, has blossomed into a "democracy preserve" that features free lectures on civics by university professors, unfettered outdoor debate, and an intimate look at Russia's growing rainbow of opposition forces, who appear to agree only on the demand that freshly inaugurated President Vladimir Putin step down.

So far the police have left it alone, though they beat and arrested hundreds during protests against Mr. Putin's inauguration last week. Yesterday about 15,000 people, including top opposition leaders, writers, and other celebrities, marched across central Moscow to express solidarity with the campers.

But is the appearance of a permanent opposition outpost in the heart of Moscow and the outpouring of social support it's attracted the reason behind the apparently odd behavior of Putin, who was inaugurated amid unprecedented social protests? Within days of taking office, Putin announced he would not be attending the Group of 8 summit later this week at Camp David, an unprecedented action for a Russian head of state and what looks like a direct snub of President Obama.

Putin explained that he is "too busy" establishing his new government to attend the annual summit of G-8 leaders, and that he will send former president and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead. That may be all there is to it. But the move has sparked an outpouring of discussion in Moscow because it's unheard-of for a Kremlin leader to dodge an opportunity to share the big stage with his Western counterparts and enjoy an intimate tête-à-tête on the sidelines with the president of the United States.

Today the Moscow daily Kommersant reported that the Kremlin leader's first foreign trip will probably be to isolated, anti-Western Belarus, followed by a meeting of the Central Asia-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organization in China in early June.

Unprecedented defiance

Some argue that Putin, mindful of a national history that has seen two mighty Russian states collapse under the impact of social discontent in the past century alone, has decided to play it safe and remain at home until it's clear where the current protest movement may be leading.

"Everyone underestimated the energy of popular protests," says Sergei Davidis, a leader of the opposition Solidarnost movment. "A lot of people thought it would all calm down [after the inauguration]; but that's not happening, and people are finding new ways to express their civil position. Things like this camp are new for Russia, and the authorities are flummoxed to find that cracking down and arresting people doesn't stop it. People are saying they don't want to wait another six years [till the end of Putin's term] to see changes."

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