Analysis: Putin faces steep challenge in protests

LYNN BERRY Associated Press Published:

MOSCOW (AP) -- The urban professionals who have risen up against Vladimir Putin are the very people he needs to move Russia forward.

So far he has shown few signs of understanding who they are and what they want.

How Putin responds to the challenge, and whether he can stop the protests from spreading, will play a crucial role in determining the fate of his new term as president and of Russia itself.

The factors that will shape the nation's future:

PUTIN FATIGUE: Evidence of vote-rigging to save Putin's unpopular party from defeat in a December election set off a series of unprecedented protests. Long-stirring anger among young professionals and what has become known as the "creative class" was no longer confined to the Internet, but on display on the streets of Moscow and other cities. Protest rallies became a celebration of this newfound sense of community and purpose. The protesters are tired of the corruption Putin has fostered and the stifling political system that has deprived them of a voice in how their country is governed.

Mostly, though, they are just tired of Putin.

PUTIN'S CHOICE: Now that his return to the Kremlin is secured, the big question is how Putin will respond to the protests and the deeper grievances they represent. Will he tighten the screws or follow through on promises of political reform? His actions so far suggest he will try to do both. It will be a difficult balancing act. If he cracks down too hard on the opposition, or tries to control the Internet or the independent broadcasters that have become platforms for free discussion, he could incite further anger. Ditto if his political reforms turn out to be just window dressing. But if Putin genuinely opens up the political system, he risks losing control over parliament and the governors who rule in his name across the vast country. WHITHER THE PROTESTS: The protesters say Putin's promises to restore elections for governors and to allow opposition parties to take part in parliamentary elections are proof that they can be a force for change. They vow to keep up the pressure out on the streets. But it is not clear that they can maintain momentum now that the election is over. The mood at a protest on Monday was gloomier, and several hundred activists provoked a police crackdown by trying to occupy the central square after it was over. Some of the opposition leaders are becoming more confrontational, which could undermine the unity of a peaceful movement that has allowed liberals, leftists and nationalists to make common cause. On a more positive note, the protest movement may be giving rise to a new civic activism, as shown by the tens of thousands of volunteers who served as poll monitors during Sunday's election. The movement also has encouraged some people who planned to leave the country to stay and do their part to make Russia a better place for themselves and their children.

WHAT COULD BRING PUTIN DOWN: Putin has made no attempt to reach the new generation of educated, urban Russians and doesn't seem to know how. Even his humor, often crude and filled with references to old Soviet films, falls flat. He appears to be betting that he can contain the protesters' anger and prevent them from broadening their appeal. The danger to Putin is the Russian economy, still dependent on exports of oil and gas despite grand plans to modernize industry. To consolidate his support ahead of the election, Putin threw money at all sectors of the population, promising billions of dollars in new spending that will severely strain the budget. If Putin doesn't deliver, his support base may turn against him. And if the workers, teachers and government employees who were bused to Putin's campaign rallies decide to join the opposition protests instead, he's doomed.

___

Lynn Berry has covered Russian politics since 1995.