Putin recalculates as politics makes a comeback in Russia (video)

At least 30,000 Muscovites protested Putin's grip on government this weekend. Monday, a new challenger, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, jumped into Russia's presidential race.

Yana Lapikova/RIA Novosti/AP
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin conducts a meeting in Moscow, in this file photo dated Friday, Dec. 9. Prime Minister Putin is used to talking to people and leading from the front, but he may have to learn how to listen to the people of Russia following the mass protests on Saturday Dec. 10, throughout his nation.

In Russia, politics are suddenly real again.

That was the verdict of many observers Monday, just two days after a crowd of at least 30,000 Muscovites gathered in a downtown square to call for an end to Vladimir Putin's decade-old system of "managed democracy," which severely limits electoral choice, media access, and public freedom of speech. Smaller meetings were held in at least 15 other Russian cities.

Even rally organizers could not agree on a set of precise demands to Russian authorities, nor where they hope to lead the unexpected and mostly spontaneous popular surge from here. Some were calling for a fair recount of the votes in last week's Duma elections, others for the results to be annulled and the polls held again. Many say the opposition's next test of strength, a rally scheduled in Moscow for Dec. 24, will determine whether the movement has enough staying power to become a genuine "Russian Spring."

"Ninety percent of those who came out were not revolutionaries, they're just people who want the right to choose," says Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy with the left-wing A Just Russia party and one of the rally's key organizers. "But if people were able to choose freely, the power in Russia would change, and that would be kind of revolutionary.... We'll know in a couple of weeks whether we can keep up this dynamic of increasing numbers; if not the movement may subside for awhile."

But there seems little doubt that all previous political calculations are now off, including Mr. Putin's reelection as president in polls slated for next March, which seemed a rock-solid inevitability just two weeks ago.

"We've known for some time that a lot of Russians were discontented, but active defiance is something new," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "This is politics coming back. There's no question that the presidential elections, instead of being an easy walk to the Kremlin for Putin, are going to be unpredictable in many ways. He will probably still win, but this new public mood isn't going to go away. It's going to produce surprises."

By Monday, many of Russia's key political actors were busy recalculating.

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Medvedev talks to his Facebook friends

President Dmitry Medvedev took to his Facebook page to declare that he supports "freedom of assembly," even if he disagrees with some of the slogans voiced by protesters, and has ordered the official Investigative Committee to look into allegations of fraud and vote-rigging in last week's Duma polls. Before Saturday's huge rally, Mr. Medvedev had praised the election results as reflecting "the real situation" in Russian society.

Putin, who has remained silent since the protest, said through his spokesman Dmitry Peskov that he opposes a vote recount. "Even if you add up all this so-called evidence [of fraud], it accounts for just over 0.5 percent of the total number of votes," Mr. Peskov said. "this can in no way affect the question of the vote's legitimacy or the overall results."

Mikhail Prokhorov, the liberal billionaire who was driven from the political stage last September and forced to quit his party, Right Cause, after disobeying his Kremlin handlers, announced at a Moscow press conference Monday that he will challenge Putin in the upcoming presidential election.

"Society is waking up, whether we want it or not," Mr. Prokhorov said. "Authorities that have proven unable to hold a normal dialogue with the population are clearly on their way out.... I want to be the candidate of the middle class."

Many observers have noted that the majority of those who turned up at Saturday's rally were politically unaffiliated, youthful, and educated Russians, attracted not so much by the opposition political parties, who have taken credit, as by the spontaneous alchemy of mass networking through Facebook, LiveJournal, and the Russian language VKontakte. Ironically, they are mostly the winners, not the losers, of a decade of social stability and relative prosperity under Putin's rule. Though they are clearly fed up with Kremlin-choreographed elections, a culture of arbitrary bureaucracy and official corruption, and an uninformative mass media, their mood may not be particularly revolutionary.

"It's important to note that the people who came out to the rally were not the working class, not pensioners, and for the most part not students. They were the middle class: managers, professionals, people who do well and make more money than most Russians do," says Yulia Latynina, an investigative journalist who hosts a public affairs program on the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station.

"They do not want blood; revolution for them is something unknown and frightening. They want a normal transition to a normal government.... If Russia's ruling elite wants to survive, and prevent revolution, they need to get rid of Putin and form an alliance with these people," she says.

Prokhorov also warned that Putin-style authoritarianism could be leading Russia toward left-wing revolution.

"[The election results] have given us a left-dominated parliament," he said. "If even half of their promises are fulfilled, even such a big country as Russia will go bankrupt. I've made my choice [to run against Putin as a liberal] and now Russia must make its choice."

Boris Kagarlitsky, a veteran left-wing activist and director of the independent Institute for Study of Globalization and Social Problems in Moscow, says the movement that produced Saturday's rally is unlikely to maintain momentum, because its leaders are too fractious and its demands too diffuse, but it has opened a window for millions of people who have been the losers in post-Soviet Russia.

"As long as the authorities don't do something incredibly stupid – which can't be ruled out – the coalition [that organized the rally] will probably prove unsustainable," he says.

"But the real protests are yet to come," perhaps in the spring, he says.

"The vast majority of Russians, who saw their lives improve in the early Putin years, have experienced sharply worsening living standards since the economic crisis began in 2008. Now the rally in Moscow has shown them that protesting is a possibility; it's a psychological breakthrough. We're looking at a classic revolutionary situation," in which a majority of people cannot go on living as before, the rulers cannot continue governing by past methods, and there is a precipitous rise in mass political activity, he adds.

Not the end for Putin

But it doesn't necessarily spell the end for Putin, who has distanced himself from the fraud-tainted United Russia party and could yet take imaginative steps to reinvent his political appeal, says Ms. Lipman.

"The Kremlin still has all the resources. Putin's life will no longer be easy, he's lost his political monopoly, but he's far from finished," she says. "Yes, Putin is weakened, but who exactly has been empowered? That's not at all clear."

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