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Time out

January 4, 2012

More than a month on from disputed elections, a tense silence grips Russia with fresh protest planned for the beginning of February. Much-criticized Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is taking time out to reflect.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Putin has plenty to think about between electionsImage: dapd

Vladimir Putin is somewhat hesitant. Russia's prime minister and designated presidential candidate for his party appears to have not yet decided how to deal with protests against alleged fraud in recent elections. "There must be dialogue, though I ask myself in what form it should take place," said Putin.

In fact, some talks currently appear to be taking place on an informal level. Former Finance Minister and close friend of Putin Alexej Kudrin met representatives of the demonstrators at a breakfast on New Year's Day.

The invitation had come from Kudrin, journalist Sergey Parkhomenko said in an interview for the Radio Station Echo Moskvy. During the talks, the demonstrators - who have protested against perceived fraud in the elections since the beginning of December - made some of their demands known.

A crossed-out portrait of Putin
A wave of protest against Putin has arisen in the past monthImage: picture-alliance/dpa

According to Parkhomenko, Kudrin had already spoken to the prime minister and encouraged him both to express himself openly and to signal a willingness to negotiate with protesters. Sunsequently, Putin is believed to have taken a brief pause for reflection. However, he does not have much time.

Moral defeat for the Kremlin

The beginning of January sees Russia still in the midst of celebration. Between New Year and the Orthodox festival of Christmas on January 7, political life from St Petersburg to Vladivostok normally remains largely dormant. However, the current situation is somewhat different. Protests against the regime continue to dominate the headlines. In the last four weeks, according to the general tone of commentators, the country has changed more than in the whole decade before.

Where once only a few hundred demonstrators took their political demands to the streets, now tens of thousands are doing so - as they did last on December 24. The birth of the movement "For Fair Elections" has been declared by many experts to have been the Event of the Year in Russia for 2011.

"Those in power have suffered the most sever moral defeat, from which they will never recover," said Moscow political analyst Andrei Piontkovski in one of his blog entries. Both incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev, his predecessor and most likely successor, Putin, had been gripped by panic, said Piontkovski. However, there is concern that the protest movement appears to have neither a clear program, nor or strong leader.

Fireworks for New Year over Moscow
New Year opens a brief period of political inactivity in RussiaImage: Reuters

Majority against repeat of elections

Medvedev and Putin, who might wish to exchange posts after the presidential elections on March 4, have been largely measured in their response to the protest.

However, Putin at first mocked the demonstrators and compared them to monkeys. There would be no repeat, he said, of the elections that had handed an absolute majority to the ruling United Russia party. In this, it would appear that he has the support of the Russian population. According to a survey by the polling institute Levada, 56 percent of Russians were against a repeat of the vote. Only one in four Russians said they backed the demands of the protesters, the poll said.

While Putin has remained resolute and has downplayed the protest movement with remarks such as "there is nothing unusual," outgoing president Medvedev has attempted to calm the tense situation. In his last State of the Nation speech, Medvedev promised profound political reforms - including a return to the direct election of regional governors.

Shortly before New Year, there were changes at the head of the government. The Kremlin's chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov was declared Putin's deputy, and is to be charged with a task of modernization for the country. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov was appointed head of the presidential office. This is not viewed as good news by some experts. Among them are Moscow political scientist Dmitri Oreshkin, who told Deutsche Welle that Ivanov had a reputation as a hardliner.

Russian billionaire and Presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, attends a rally to protest against alleged vote rigging
Prokhorov denies being a stooge of the KremlinImage: dapd

Billionaire's challenge

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign is taking its course. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has positioned himself as one of the first presidential rivals to Putin. In a two-and-a-half minute commercial on You Tube, Prokhorov - Russia's third richest man - denied that he was in fact part of nothing more than a scheme by the Kremlin itself. He promises to liberalize Russia and to release political prisoners, including former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

How independent Prokhorov actually is, is something that remains a matter of debate. Experts such as Andrei Piontkowski believe that he is nothing more than a puppet of the Russian elite and that his role could be to ease the transfer of power.

Piontkowski's colleague Oreshkin also believes that the mediation efforts by Putin confidante Kudrin could also be a form of strategy for Putin to make the best of a difficult situation. However, Oreshkin remained doubtful that the prime minister is seriously offering the protesters anything. "The problem is that Putin does not want to compromise," he said.

Author: Roman Goncharenko, Jegor Winogradow / rc
Editor: Nicole Goebel