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Op-Ed: Protests In Russia Can't Sideline Putin


And now the Opinion Page, which was moved - which we moved from its regular Monday slot this week because of our special broadcast yesterday from National Geographic. After big demonstrations in Moscow and other cities in Russia over the weekend, we heard comparisons to the Arab Spring. Some predicted the protests could herald sweeping change. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Kathryn Stoner-Weiss argues that the protests are not completely meaningless, but she concluded that things will go on, much as they did before.

Can the movement gather momentum or will Prime Minister Putin proceed to his predicted re-election come spring? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kathryn Stoner-Weiss joins us from a studio on a campus at Stanford University, where she's a senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Her op-ed "Change in Russia is Unlikely" ran in The New York Times Room for Debate section yesterday. Nice to have you with us today.

KATHRYN STONER-WEISS: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And I think even organizers were surprised by the numbers which poured out in Moscow and other cities on Saturday.

STONER-WEISS: Yes, I think so. I think we were all a little surprised to see the numbers. Whether or not that translates into huge changes in Moscow, I think, though is still a very open question.

CONAN: Yet the - one of the powerful ideas or phrases that has come to, I guess, characterize these is the phrase the party of crooks and thieves.

STONER-WEISS: Yeah. That's a phrase that comes from a blogger, whose last name is Navalny, who has actually been put in jail. He's been in jail since last weekend - pardon me, the weekend before last, just after the elections took place on December 4. And he has called United Russia the party of crooks and thieves, and this mantra has been picked up by protesters on the streets more generally. So it can - gives you a sense of what at least Muscovites are thinking about United Russia, the party that Mr. Putin favors.

CONAN: United Russia also fared much less well in those elections than had been predicted. Why is this not a big warning sign to Mr. Putin?

STONER-WEISS: Well, I think it is actually a warning sign, and you referenced the op-ed that I did for The New York Times yesterday. I certainly end with that, that it is a warning shot, and, you know, the ball is now in the Kremlin's court to see how Mr. Putin and his protege Mr. Medvedev respond.

The fact of the matter is, though - and I have another piece in Foreign Affairs Online where I went through this - the fact of the matter is that the Duma is relatively powerless within the Russian political framework. The constitution of 1993 that was passed by Boris Yeltsin sort of under duress gives the executive, the president of Russia, pre-eminent power. And so although United Russia has fewer seats in this Duma, ultimately the president can rule by decree on almost everything except the budget.

So there's that, and then we don't have any new parties in the Duma. None of the opposition organizations or movements that are leading these protests on the street actually have representation in the Duma. We have exactly the same four parties now after these elections on December 4 than we - that we had on December 3. And they don't really form any meaningful opposition - the other three - other than United Russia, to the platform of United Russia and Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin.

CONAN: And yet Mr. Putin is also attracting a new rival for the presidency, Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian mogul best known, I guess, in this country as majority owner of the New Jersey Nets, but considerably better known in Russia.

STONER-WEISS: Yes, he is, although better known doesn't always mean better liked or well-liked, and he is one of these Russian oligarchs. He's not completely new to the Russian political scene. He actually had been leading a small party called Right Cause until September. And there was some sort of internal scuffle. He blames one of Mr. Putin's key advisers for his being displaced from that party. So he's - there's suspicion that he's not a completely independent candidate, that is he's somewhat still in the pocket of the Kremlin. And, you know, if you'd go back and look at some of his past statements, as recently as six or eight months ago, he's still saying that Mr. Putin is the only person who can really bring Russia back to its proper place among developed nations. So I would be careful not to read too much into that either.

CONAN: So it seems likely, in your view, that despite these warnings and - the character of the crowds that was in the big square in Moscow on Saturday, some people said these are the middle class. These are the people who benefited from Russian prosperity over the past few years. This was not, you know, the rabble out there.

STONER-WEISS: Yeah. That's actually one of the really very exciting things about this is that, you know, if you believe the theories that we have in political science - we actually do have some theories. This would follow one called modernization theory, which kind of makes the regime a victim of its own successes in a sense. It's - these are people who have benefited directly from the last eight to 10 years of Russia's growth. It grew on average between 2000 and 2008, seven percent or so year on year in terms of GDP, and so people's incomes have gone up considerably, and now we have this loan missing, from communism, middle class.

And modernization theory would say it's this educated, urban elite, this middle class that will gradually begin demanding accountability from an autocratic leadership. So if that's what we are actually seeing, that could be in the longer run, quite encouraging for liberalization and perhaps eventually democratization. I think that it's a longer run, though, than we might want. I think this is not exactly an Arab Spring situation or a Slavic Spring, as some folks are calling it.

CONAN: And some writers have also suggested that even - were Mr. Putin to be forced out somehow, the middle class intelligentsia would not necessarily like what followed.

STONER-WEISS: Well, that's true. And I think one of the problems here - and I don't mean to sound fatalistic about it, but one of the problems here is that there isn't really a logical alternative to Mr. Putin. There - these opposition movements that have gotten people out on the streets don't actually have a single leader behind whom they would gather and really put up a strong fight in the March 4th, 2012 presidential elections in which Mr. Putin has already declared himself a candidate.

So that's problematic, and it's not obvious who is - who's going to take that spot exactly. I can't see the Russian people dumping Mr. Putin in favor of a Russian oligarch who, you know, may have gotten his money by rather suspect ways. So, you know, that is - that's the big issue. You can have an organization, but you also, you know, you need leadership. And I think the other issue is that this movement, although it was very strong in Moscow, maybe up to 50,000 people, there were 10,000 in St. Petersburg.

There were some small sporadic movements in other parts of Russia. But you have to remember Russia is a country of nine time zones, 140 million people. So, you know, it's not as though this is a huge movement that has swept the country. That said, people are annoyed. And I think the Kremlin has to take note, and it is taking note.

CONAN: How much should we read into the election results as well? I read one analysis which suggested that when Mr. Putin was forced out of the presidency, he was term limited and became prime minister. He saw reason to have a Duma that was as powerful as possible. Now that he hopes to take the presidency back again, he proposes to have a Duma that is less powerful.

STONER-WEISS: Well, yeah. He's not going to make any changes to the constitution because he doesn't have to have that less powerful Duma. He can truly just, you know, rule without it. But I just want to remind you that, in fact, you know, United Russia still will have a majority situation in the Duma, and two of the other parties that have seats, Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, are, in one form or another, Kremlin constructs.

And the Communist Party, which is the third opposition party to United Russia in the Duma, hasn't really ever, in the last four or five years, voted meaningfully against United Russia. So I think you'll see he has a - still a relatively compliant Duma. And even if he didn't, he can pretty much do what he wants in many, many areas, without the Duma.

CONAN: What about the economic outlook, though, the - as you mentioned, the growth was not as robust the last couple of years, and some people look at Russia's situation. They've peaked on oil and gas, they suspect, and other prospects don't look so good, and the country's population is dwindling.

STONER-WEISS: Yeah. Those things are all true, and in the long run that bodes ill. And so, you know, this is presumably why, in the last few years, Mr. Medvedev, who's I noticed, being left increasingly out of this conversation, he is still the president of Russia. Mr. Medvedev hasn't made much of this modernization campaign, sort of trying to point out that Russia actually doesn't have anything to sell other than raw materials and oil in particular. So, you know, that's certainly a challenge.

As you mentioned, demographics and health are a challenge right now in Russia. It has negative population growth. And, you know, in the long run, to keep the economy moving, you have to have healthy people, as well, to work. And this has become a huge problem, as well, that Russia knows it has to attack. You know, in terms of oil peaking, they still have a lot of oil. And, you know, two or three years ago, they surpassed Saudi Arabia as one of the world's - as the world's largest exporter of oil. Oil prices are, you know, up near $100 a barrel again. So, you know, they're - I think, they'll be OK in the near term, but in the longer term, you're right. They had - they do have to find something else for their economy to do, and that is obviously a clear problem that Mr. Putin feels he himself must come back to solve for Russia.

CONAN: In the last years of the old Soviet Regime, even those who benefited from it and were members of it, nobody believed what the party said anymore. You and every other observer has concluded that the election results we just saw were largely falsified in many places. Mr. Gorbachev came out and said we need to overturn these results and have new elections. The internal contradictions, lying to yourself even when you know you're lying, doesn't that bode ill over the long term too?

STONER-WEISS: Sure, it does. And I think that's why these demonstrations are a very important warning shot, if nothing else, for Mr. Putin. And they have made some steps toward trying to placate those, like Gorbachev, who, you know, doesn't advise Mr. Putin, for sure, and doesn't have the moral suasion within Russia that you might think he would from the perspective of the United States. He's not that popular a figure within Russia. That said, you know, they are now declaring - that is Mr. Medvedev, in particular - is declaring that they will go and explore some of these claims of vote rigging. And, indeed, they've already, you know, found few people in the provinces of Russia who they will bring up and blame for acting independently in this way.

So I think you'll see some fall guys come and be punished, quite publicly, for doing this. But, you know, I don't think some of the more radical calls for the dismissal of the head of the Central Electoral Commission, that sort of thing, I don't think that's likely to happen in the immediate future either.

CONAN: So 12 more years.

STONER-WEISS: Well, at least six, maybe 12.

CONAN: Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, thank you very much for your time today.

STONER-WEISS: Thank you.

CONAN: Kathryn Stoner-Weiss is senior fellow at Stanford University Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, author of "Resisting the State: Reform and Retrenchment in the Post-Soviet Russia." She wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, Room for Debate, "Change in Russia is Unlikely."

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