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Sunday 25 December 2011

Russian protest movement to continue, say experts

MOSCOW: Protest activity in Russia was not slowing down as sceptics had predicted, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is increasingly becoming the target of popular fury, experts have said.

A mass rally Saturday (Dec 24) that brought thousands of Muscovites on to the streets for the second time in two weeks marks a new step in the current political situation in Russia, they said. New strong figures such as former finance minister Alexei Kudrin have come on board.

If Saturday's rally had amassed less people than the numbers Dec 10, it would have meant that the outbreak of protest was a short emotional reaction to the mass allegations of fraud during parliamentary elections Dec 4.

However, the "colourful and overwhelmingly calm crowd" had more than 55,000 people, that defied the skeptical voices and proved that public politics are back for an extended period of time.

"It is a process that is unfolding, and the authorities should not expect that after the holidays people will simply forget about it," said Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The Kremlin has been sending signals that it was listening to the protesters.

After outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev offered a programme of political reform in his address to parliament, Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said Saturday that proposals put forth by Medvedev to loosen restrictions on political parties could in theory be put into action quickly.

The main target of the protest, however, was Putin. No slogan was picked up by the protesters with greater enthusiasm than "Russia without Putin".

In a way, while the Dec 10 rally was a post-Duma election rally, the protest Saturday, although it repeated the demands for a new parliamentary vote, clearly belonged to the presidential campaign.

"We are now within the presidential electoral campaign, and the rally at the Sakharov Avenue was undoubtedly a rally under the slogan 'Putin leave!'" said Alexander Morozov, political analyst and chief editor of the Russky Zhural online magazine.

Alexei Mukhin, director of the Centre for Politial Information think tank, agreed that Putin was increasingly the target but stressed that the opposition continues to lack a comparable leader figure.

"'Russia without Putin' is the strongest slogan, but it is at the same time the weakest one," Mukhin said.

"Because the answer is -- ok, Putin, leaves, and then what? Nothing is being offered instead. There is no strong figure that would be able to compete with Putin. It is the weak point, where the pro-government forces are going to strike," he said.

Saturday's rally also signaled upcoming changes in the leadership structure of the opposition.

Perhaps the biggest novelty was the appearance of Alexei Kudrin, former finance minister, whom Putin refers to as his "friend" remaining "part of the team".

At the rally, Kudrin called for "able leadership" and for the creation of a platform for dialogue between the opposition and the Kremlin.

"Otherwise there will be revolution, otherwise we lose the opportunity before us today for the peaceful transformation and the trust that is necessary for a new leadership that will be elected," he said at the rally.

Morozov said Kudrin's appearance was the main news Saturday.

"Kudrin is a figure who can claim leadership, together with the others," the analyst said.

Petrov said that apart from Kudrin and billionaire and potential presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, other "celebrities" such as TV anchor and socialite Ksenia Sobchak were joining the protest movement in a sign of its growing appeal, a process that is likely to continue.

"I saw calm people, who no longer have any fear, who count on public politics in such a way to go on and not on a revolution," Morozov said. "Public politics have now become normal in Russia." 

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