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Putin's war of words

December 9, 2011

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin resurrected the art of Cold War rhetoric when he accused the US of inciting the post-election protests that have posed a surprise challenge to his decade-long grip on power.

Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin
Putin accused Hillary Clinton of sending a signal to activistsImage: dapd/DW

Putin, responding angrily to Clinton's repeated criticism of last weekend's parliamentary election as neither free nor fair, accused the US of bankrolling his opponents in order to interfere in Russia's internal affairs by funding Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the tune of "hundreds of millions of dollars."

"Pouring foreign money into electoral processes is particularly unacceptable," he said. "Hundreds of millions are being invested in this work. We need to work out ways to protect our sovereignty and to defend ourselves from outside interference." Putin added that Russia would hold to account those who "dance to the tune of a foreign state."

Russian PM Vladimir Putin
Putin was livid that the US had criticized the Russian electionsImage: AP

"They are trying to shake us up so that we do not forget who is boss on the planet," he claimed, reviving a theme last used during the Cold War to suggest the US was attempting to put Russia in its place out of fear of its nuclear arsenal.

Margarete Klein, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said it was unlikely that Putin really believes that the United States was behind the protests and that his outburst is more of a tactic to detract from the regime's own failure to produce the desired outcome in the elections.

"Putin needs a scapegoat and this is an easy way to discredit the opposition and the protesting people as mere henchmen of the United States," she told Deutsche Welle. "These comments are more linked to the nervousness of the political leadership concerning the tense situation and the protests in Moscow."

Dr. Margot Light, a Russia expert at the London School of Economics, agreed: "Putin still believes that that US, the European Union and the NGOs they fund were responsible for the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and he has always feared similar interference in Russia," she told Deutsche Welle.

Clinton, US refuse to back down

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
Clinton refused to back down and reiterated her concernsImage: AP

Hillary Clinton, in Brussels this week for a meeting of NATO officials, responded to Putin's claims by saying that the United States had "expressed concerns we thought were well-founded about the conduct of the elections."

"We are supportive of the rights and aspirations of the Russian people to be able to make progress and to realize a better future for themselves, and we hope to see that unfold in the years ahead," she added.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner went further by dismissing Putin's charges, saying that funding by Washington goes only to strengthening democracy.

"US programs are designed to support a more transparent, free and fair electoral process. They're not about favoring any political group or any political agenda more than any other agenda."

"We've stood up, as we have elsewhere in the world, and continue to stand for the right for people to peacefully express their views and their democratic aspirations," he added. "There's no 'signaling' involved."

Stanislav Secrieru, associate researcher at the Center for East European and Asian Studies in Bucharest, also rejected Putin's claims that the US has any involvement in the elections or protests.

"The causes of the protests in Moscow are entirely domestic," he told Deutsche Welle. "US high officials travelling to Russia usually meet with representatives of Russian civil society and opposition but these meetings are agreed in advance and the Russian authorities are informed in detail about these events. The US does not support any particular party in Russia."

Few credible alternatives

Russian PM Vladimir Putin is seen during live broadcasting on Russian State Television channel at a shop in downtown Moscow
Russia lacks alternatives to Putin and United RussiaImage: AP

While the US expressed concern when President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would step aside to allow Putin to run for the presidency in 2012, a post he conceded to his protégé in 2008, experts feel that there is currently a dearth in possible opposition figures the US could throw its support behind - even if it wanted to.

"The problem concerning alternative candidates is that the liberal parties in Russia are weak and the opposition groups which - in free and fair elections - could gain strength are located in the nationalist specter," said Klein.

"However, we see a middle class emerging that is frustrated with the current politics and young people that use the internet to criticize the ruling class. These are forces that might in a midterm perspective be driving forces for more political reforms."

Protests gather pace

International observers said Sunday's election, which was won by Putin's United Russia party but with a reduced majority, was riddled with fraud while the independent poll monitoring group Golos revealed that it had been subjected to severe harassment by the Russian authorities in the build-up to the ballot, with its communications paralyzed and its chief detained by the police.

Russian policemen detain a protester
Experts say the protests lack important elements to succeedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The election result sent thousands of demonstrators out onto the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, protesting against what they saw as widespread fraud in the parliamentary polls. Many said that United Russia's showing in the polls would have been far worse had the elections been free and fair.

The Kremlin's crackdown has done little to break the spirit of the opposition, however, with a mass rally planned in Moscow for the weekend with more than 20,000 people pledging to attend on a specially organized Facebook page. There are also plans for protests in almost all of Russia's large cities, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.

The Moscow rally has been officially sanctioned by the Kremlin but city regulations have capped the number of attendees at 300, with riot police intervention likely should the number of protestors exceed that.

Despite the growing anger over the election results, regional experts believe that the moves against the Kremlin are currently more of a reaction rather than a cohesive movement organized to facilitate change.

"While the extent of the protests is surprisingly high, what seems to be lacking are the capabilities to organize prolonged protests not only in Moscow and St Petersburg but in the regions as well, as well as the installation of a popular opposition figure," said Klein.

Dr. Light took a more pessimistic position. "I'm afraid that the authorities will crack down and the protests will peter out," she said. "Russia is not yet ready for a new Russian revolution."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge