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What do Russia's protests mean?

Someone asked me on Twitter if Russia's widespread protests could turn into another velvet revolution. That's a big question to answer in 140 characters.

There are several questions to answer: are Putin's detractors growing or do people who long disagreed with him feel freer to take to the streets to protest? (If it's the latter, does the liberal rhetoric of President Dmitry Medvedev play a part?) Who would the protesters like to see in Putin's place?

I asked everyone I spoke to in Kaliningrad if they had supported Putin in the beginning of his term, or always been against him (Putin's approval rating has always hovered around 60-70 percent, which means 30-40 percent have long been suspicious.) Nearly everyone said they had supported him at first, though frequent mentions of his KGB background make me suspect that may not have been the case.

These protests are important because, though still incredibly small, they are larger than anything we've seen before and are, for the first time organized. Yet the opposition has yet to put forward what they are for — right now they're just protesting against something. And while their unification is impressive it's also disturbing — the liberal Solidarity movement is aligning with supporters of the pro-Stalinist Communist Party and the LDPR, a far right nationalist movement known for the insane anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-rational rhetoric of its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Political analyts here have long suspected that if the Putin government falls, it's an ubernationalist one that would take its place. Liberal politics has little place in contemporary Russia.

No, this is not a velvet revolution. It's not a revolution at all. It's several hundred people taking to the streets, mad first and foremost about economic concerns, and secondly about things like free press and corruption. People are angry with the government, and they want their lives to get better. Putin spent eight years of booming growth taking credit for Russia's rebirth. Now the people are calling for him to take responsibility for, and to fix, its troubles.

And it's interesting to note that the two largest protests took place in Kaliningrad and Vladivostok, two cities on the far edges of Russian territory, one surrounded by EU countries, the other looking onto the Asian-Pacific.

The most interesting thing to watch is authorities' reaction. Opposition leaders were arrested ahead of protests in Arkhangelsk and Tomsk, and up to 70 protestors were arrested in Moscow. In Kaliningrad, authorities banned people from marching in the center and set up an ad hoc market instead — a common tactic throughout Russia (though it didn't work this time). Let's see how they react for the next round of protests. I suspect they are, as opposition leader Vladimir Milov told me in Kaliningrad, "basically hysterical."

 

http://www.globalpost.com/notebook/russia-and-its-neighbors/100321/what-do-russias-protests-mean