Who can beat Putin? Russia′s search for an opposition leader | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.12.2011
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Who can beat Putin? Russia's search for an opposition leader

After tens of thousands protested for fair elections in Moscow on Saturday, the search for a leader of the protest movement is underway. At the moment there is no one who can seriously challenge the Kremlin.

Protesters in Moscow

Saturday's protest was the biggest in a decade

Moscow is restless. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests both for and against the results of parliamentary elections on December 4. Most recently, supporters of the governing United Russia party staged a rally in the Russian capital, waving Russian flags in support of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

They want to show Putin, who is the party's nominee for next year's presidential elections, that he is backed by at least some of the Russian population.

Putin and Medvedev unimpressed

However, the starkest impression from the Russian protests has been left by those who protest against Putin and United Russia.

Medvedev and Putin

Medvedev and Putin dismissed the demonstrations

"It has to now be clear to the Putin administration that large portions of the population are no longer supporting it," said Hans-Henning Schröder, head of the Russian Federation research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Tens of thousands were involved in the 'For Fair Elections' protest last Saturday on Moscow's Bolotnaja Square, the highest turnout for a demonstration in over ten years.

The protesters are calling for a repeat of the December 4th parliamentary elections. According to official results, United Russia won an absolute majority with around 50 percent of the vote. Demonstrators don't believe these figures and accuse the authorities of massive election fraud.

The Kremlin denies the allegations.

"I do not agree with the accusations or the demands of the demonstrators," said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a post on Sunday to his Facebook account.

Putin did also not appear to be impressed by the demonstrations. He's blamed the West, and the US in particular, for giving the protesters a 'signal' with their criticisms of the election.

Steering the movement

What comes next? That's the biggest question being discussed these days in Russia.

Hans-Henning Schröder

Schröder thinks the Kremlin will try and channel the protests' momentum

'It can't be the case that the protests on Saturday will go down in history as merely a one-time blowing off of steam,' is the general sentiment to be found in online forums.

Hans-Henning Schröder says the parliamentary elections won't be repeated, and that the government will react 'flexibly' to the protests.

"There will be an investigation, there will be several cases of fraud that are uncovered, and there might be a special election," Schröder predicts.

Schröder thinks the Kremlin will also try and steer the momentum of the protests. The example he gives are calls by former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin to create a new center-right political party.

"He's not making those calls on his on," Schröder says. "It's a part of the Kremlin's strategy to contain this reluctance."

Kudrin was known for years as a Putin ally but was relieved of his post a few weeks ago after speaking critically of Medvedev.

Now Kudrin is being put into the role that the Kremlin originally envisioned for Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, Schröder believes. Prokhorov was elected head of the center-right 'Right Cause' party in the summer. Observers believe the businessman was meant to bring together voices of dissatisfaction in the middle class. But that never happened.

Mikhail Prokhorov

Prokhorov has thrown his hat into the ring

Prokhorov stepped down a few months before the parliamentary elections and called his party a 'marionette' of the Kremlin.

Now, according to Schröder, Kudrin could adopt 'the Prokhorov model.'

Prokhorov himself has not entirely faded to the background, though. On Monday, Russia's third-richest man announced his intention to run in presidential elections on March 4. Now, observers wonder if this is actually just a move by the Kremlin to steer the political debate in a new direction.

No Leader, no team

One thing is clear, and that is that the urban middle class's new protest movement in Russia lacks a leader.

"I don't see anyone who will emerge as a clear leader from this group," said Schröder.

This makes Russia's current protests different from the Orange Revolution during Ukraine's presidential election in 2004. In that case, there were leaders from parts of the Ukrainian elite.

"In Russia, there is a closed elite. No one will break out and take up a position against the Kremlin," Schröder said.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Khodorkovsky will likely remain in jail for several years

Even participants in Saturday's protests in Moscow see the situation similarly. There are known opposition leaders, such as the former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, but he has so far been unable to mobilize a majority of the protest movement.

The only person that the Kremlin would have to take seriously and who would have the support of the movement is oil magnate and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky - but he has been in jail since 2003 and is likely to spend many more years there.

Schröder says that the protest movement is lacking more than just a strong leader.

"They are also missing a team that can take the movement's initiative and bring it to the political front," he said.

Future demonstrations on the scale of the one on Saturday are dependent on answering these questions. The next large protest of 'For Fair Elections' is scheduled for December 24.

Autor: Roman Goncharenko / mz
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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