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Could A Russian Winter Follow The Arab Spring?


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's follow up on a weekend of protest in Russia. Allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election sent tens of thousands of people into the streets demonstrating against the party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Behind that tainted election was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Putin himself, who used to be president, remains dominant today, and is preparing to retake the top job.

David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker magazine, noted for many years for his own journalism on Russia. And he has just written about the growing resistance to Putin. He's on the line.

Mr. Remnick, welcome to the program.

DAVID REMNICK: Good morning.

INSKEEP: You know, you write that millions of Russians remain apolitical today - basically willing to let Putin run the country. His approval ratings are still in the 60s, yet something has changed here. What is it?

REMNICK: Well, I think the mood of the country or large sections of the country have changed. And part of it is the result of ironically some of the stability that you've seen or rough stability that you've seen in Russia. People want more than just a piece of bread.

You saw it in Egypt, you've seen it elsewhere that you have a growing middle class that decides it wants to hold on to what they have. They want access to law. They want access to truth on the airwaves. They want a lot of things that a piece of bread and a stable living can't provide.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that some of Putin's policies, at least economic policies have succeeded and now they're coming back to bite him?

REMNICK: I don't know if they're Putin's policies. I think it could be argued what produced the stability of the last 10 years is high oil prices and that possibly anybody sitting in that chair with some political skill would do that. I'd hate to be in the position or in the chair of endorsing the incredible rise of authoritarianism in Russia that we've seen in the past decade. That would be a little bit too painful.

INSKEEP: Now, even before this weekend's protests, you were finding signs of dissatisfaction with Putin, including some that were directed at Putin himself at a boxing match, for example. What were you learning about?

REMNICK: Well, there was an ultimate fighting match a couple of weeks before the election between an American and a Russian. And the Russian crushed the American. And Putin climbed through the ropes. He was ringside. He goes to events liked that quite often. It gives him the image of a tough guy, a real man.

And he started hearing jeering from the crowd, and these were his people. These were not Moscow intellectuals at kitchen tables of legend. These were not bearded literary scholars. These were ultimate fighting fans. And they were jeering Putin. And Putin has never heard this in a dozen years in power. He'd never heard this kind of thing.

And the truth is, around the country you've been hearing intimations of this, that his party, the United Russia Party, had been getting booed in one form or another. I just think that sometimes a national mood can change. And it has.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises another question. I mean, the automatic comparison what people will draw or try to draw is to the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and elsewhere. Do you think it is plausible at least that Russia could be heading for a similar story?

REMNICK: I think it's facile. I think you always run into trouble when you try to say something equals something else historically. In Russia, you have a relatively low unemployment rate. The society is older. It is not as centralized and it has a vast, vast territory. It makes it very hard to kind of have a protest movement coalesce.

Nevertheless, to see 50,000 people on the streets on Saturday, another demonstration planned for later this month and suddenly power is backing off. It realizes that the price of clamping down, of beating everybody up, of beating people into submission is too high.

This is the thing that Putin has recognized. That totalitarianism, the old Soviet style of totalitarianism is too un-modern, too pre-modern, too brutal, too expensive to exact. And so he's tried a more flexible authoritarianism. But you're starting to see big cracks in the system.

INSKEEP: Mr. Remnick, thanks very much.

REMNICK: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker magazine. He writes in this week's issue about signs of resistance to Russian prime minister and would-be future president Vladimir Putin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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