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.'

Alexei Druzhinin/Government Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, May 11.

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

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."

The appearance of this defiant little camp, and the wide social resonance it's drawn, suggests that Russia's middle class, anti-Putin protest movement that began with a few huge rallies against electoral fraud in December is rapidly shape-shifting and becoming a permanent fixture on Russia's political landscape. But the numbers of people involved are still relatively few, and the mood is more festive than revolutionary.

"Here there's no difference between left and right. Everyone lives together in tents and gets along because they all stand for honesty," says Olga Romanova, a journalist who's become a leading opposition figure and a regular denizen of the Chistye Prudi encampment. "Even if this camp is swept away – as it will surely be – we'll go to new places and find new ways to express ourselves… 

"This is no longer a protest movement of the middle class, but increasingly of angry citizens of the lower middle class as well," she says. "The moods are growing more serious, and tending more to the left. I think we're going to see a huge outpouring of protest when the next big rally is held on June 12."

Does Putin prefer a 'cold war' to a 'reset'?

Some experts suggest Putin's decision to shun the G8 is not just about sticking around to see what happens in Moscow in the next few weeks, but heralds a major shift in foreign policy. They say that the "reset" of relations between the US and Russia initiated by Mr. Obama has run into a brick wall of disagreement over missile defense and that Putin would be more comfortable – for domestic as well as international reasons – with the state of semi-cold war that existed between Russia and the US under former President George W. Bush.

"The fact that Putin is snubbing the G8 is related to his personal distrust of the US, and perhaps he's sending the message that the Kremlin would actually prefer a Mitt Romney presidency," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a leading Moscow think tank.

"To skip the summit at the last minute like that suggests that we are not ready to continue the relationship with the US on the same level that we did under Medvedev. It also sends the message that we think a Romney presidency, in which Russia would be treated like a 'geopolitical foe' would be better for us," Mr. Suslov says.

The foreign-policy choice, if that's what Putin is making, has direct implications for the little "democracy preserve" at Chistye Prudi.

"As for dealing with the opposition, worse relations with the US would be a godsend for Putin, and would give him the perfect excuse to crack down. He would be able to say 'we're surrounded by enemies, we need to consolidate'. I fear that Russia's old-new president is still stuck firmly in that old paradigm," Suslov says.

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