MOSCOW, Russia — Vladimir Putin says he wants to return to the Kremlin for another six years in elections that are now six weeks away. He says his goal is to keep Russia on a track toward stability, prosperity and renewed super-power status. There might also be room for a few democratic reforms and measures to reduce police abuses, he adds.
However, in his first manifesto in many years, published Monday in the pro-government daily Izvestia (English translation here), Putin makes clear that he will not dialogue with leaders of the protests that exploded onto the streets of Moscow last month. This opposition movement is demanding fair elections, greater accountability and, increasingly, that Putin reconsider his decision to run for a third presidential term.
In his first admission that the protests may have fundamentally altered the political calculus, Putin warned that the opposition's planned wave of street demonstrations might unhinge state power and release the most terrifying specter of Russian history: revolution.
"A recurring problem in Russian history is the desire of a part of its elites to make leaps, to embrace revolution instead of evolutionary development," Putin wrote. "Not only Russian experience, but all world experience shows the fatal result of historic leaps: haste and subversion, without creation."
Opposition leaders insist Putin is hyperventilating about the threat to national stability in order to avoid any probing discussion about his "managed democracy" — a model that critics disparage for its preordained outcomes, ensuring that independent politicians cannot gain a foothold and compete fairly for power.
Some argue that Putin himself has become the central obstacle to developing genuine democracy in Russia, and that the main goal of coming protests, scheduled to begin on Feb. 4, should be to demand that Putin step aside in favor of a transitional figure — perhaps incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev — who would organize fair elections for a fresh parliament and a new president.
"Putin is way behind the curve. The public mood is already shifting to the conviction that he will have to go in order to make democratic development possible in Russia," says Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist leader of the protest movement, who's spent much of the past month in prison.
"It's absolutely clear that Putin, the architect of the system we have now, is never going to be the guarantor of free elections. I don't believe in miracles. People are starting to think seriously about how to make him leave, and then how to go forward. We'll need an interim government, or perhaps some sort of constituent assembly to rewrite the rules. This conversation is already happening," he says.
"It's as if Putin hasn't heard anything" that people in last month's huge street rallies were demanding, says Boris Nemtsov, co-leader of the banned liberal PARNAS party and a key protest organizer. "People want all political prisoners to be freed, the results of the [allegedly-fixed, Dec. 4] parliamentary elections to be cancelled, new parliamentary elections, and the legal registration of all opposition parties."
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, says Putin appears increasingly out of touch with the public mood.
"Putin appears happy with himself, and he just doesn't see what the rest of the country does," he says. "Putin's insistence on being a candidate in the presidential elections is just leading the country down the path of stagnation."
In his manifesto, Putin disputed that view, turning his accusers’ recriminations back at them.
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Without naming any of them, Putin attacked the leaders of the protest movement as wayward members of Russia's corrupt ruling class who seek power solely to enrich themselves, and not to bring democracy to the masses.
"At every convenient moment, right before our eyes, the 'subversive' individuals turn into 'self-righteous lords,' who resist change and jealously guard their status and privileges," Putin wrote, likely an allusion to the freewheeling 1990's, when a generation of Soviet-era market reformers enabled the emergence of a class of rapacious oligarchs. "Or a reverse process happens: the 'lords' become 'subversive' individuals," possibly a reference to Nemtsov, a leading 1990's market reformer turned pro-democracy dissident.
"Today people are talking about various forms of renewal of the political process. But what are we supposed to be negotiating about? About how our power should be structured? Whether it should be given to 'better people?' And beyond that — what? What should we do?" Putin wrote.
Experts say that Putin is appealing to the average Russian's very real fear of revolutionary upheaval, and also the deep suspicion, rooted in experience, that new bosses coming to power will be just as greedy and corrupt as the old ones.
Many experts suggest this "devil you know" approach may be the strongest card Putin has left to play, and some note the ironies that bespeaks about Putin-era Russia.
"People in the opposition are now talking about various scenarios for Putin to leave power, but the chances of that are almost zero," says Mark Urnov, dean of political science at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "Putin may even privately want to get out, and probably he could negotiate guarantees for his own safety. But there are too many people in his circle who would face prosecution for corruption if he left, and he can't negotiate guarantees for them all. So they will keep the pressure on him to stay. He's a prisoner of the system he created."
Presidential elections are due to get underway in a couple of weeks, but most of the new leaders of the protest movement are banned from running.
That leaves a lackluster field of familiar candidates to face Putin. These candidates’ limited appeal to Russia's electorate is already well-known.
They include Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, third-time candidate, liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky, and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky — widely regarded as a buffoon, who has run in every Russian presidential election since 1990.
Another contender is former speaker of the upper house of parliament Sergei Mironov, a former Putin crony who polled less than one percent when he ran against him in 2004. Mironov's most notable quote in that campaign was: "We all want Vladimir Putin to be the next president."
Also certain to be on the ballot is Mikhail Prokhorov, a youthful, energetic billionaire-turned-politician who might be able to fashion some appeal to Russia's emerging big-city middle class, if he can shake off the widespread suspicion that he is actually a Kremlin stalking horse. But he's unlikely to gain any traction in the vast, conservative and working-class hinterland, where Prokhorov's murky 1990's era fortune, his jet-setting, playboy lifestyle and his hard-edged neo-liberal economic views are pure political poison.
But even with that field of candidates, carefully landscaped in advance to make certain Putin looks like the only viable alternative, trouble may be brewing.
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"The ability of the system to mobilize votes the way it did in the past is now looking doubtful," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who broke with him last year. "Putin may try to find solutions, but it's harder for him to pressure the apparatus than before. If anti-Putin moods spread inside the machine, the crisis can reach a new level. It's quite possible that Putin will not win the election in the first round," and be forced into a runoff with someone like Zyuganov, he says.
Even if he wins in a second round, Putin will be seriously weakened, say experts.
"A difficult struggle doesn't suit Putin, because even a victory will be a signal to the whole state bureaucracy that he is weak," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
Makarkin says Putin's new manifesto, which promises some liberal reforms to the middle class and increased social benefits to Russia's masses of working poor, is not achievable.
With protest and political activism on the rise, Putin faces a very tough ride, he says.
"Putin is trapped between two stools. The politically active part of the population is increasingly deserting him, and his old traditional base of support will also turn angry if he doesn't deliver on promises (like increased wages and pensions). This is not a crisis that will end on March 4. Even if he's elected, there's no guarantee that Putin will last out his term."