Russia's Presidential Campaign: Putin Versus the Protesters

anti-putin demonstrations in Moscow
Widespread outrage over December’s parliamentary elections provoked the biggest street protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. Valeri Nistratov / for Newsweek

Vladimir Putin is a snake—he says so himself. At his latest four-hour press conference, the Russian prime minister compared himself to Kaa, the huge, hypnotic python from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. And the growing ranks of protesters against his regime? He called them "monkeys." As any Jungle Book fan (which includes most Russians) knows, Kaa is "everything that the monkeys feared in the jungle, for none of them knew the limits of his power, none of them could look him in the face, and none had ever come alive out of his hug." Which leaves little doubt about Putin's response to the series of protests that have brought 100,000 people into the streets of Moscow and 100 other Russian cities over the past month. Hypnotize them. Then crush them.

His plan has just one flaw: a large slice of Russia has unexpectedly snapped out of his spell. In the weeks since December's clumsily rigged parliamentary elections, the Kremlin's old political-control system has seemed as outdated and clunky as Putin himself. The state-controlled print and broadcast media that once helped him keep the public in line have grown irrelevant to the 60 million wired Russians who can swap news and details of protests using Facebook and Twitter. The rent-a-crowd pro-Putin "counterprotests" have looked crude and ridiculous next to the real rallies against the regime. And Putin's biggest asset, the soaring oil market that buoyed Russia's economy for much of the past decade, has shriveled amid a global recession that has pushed prices below the $115 a barrel Russia needs just to balance his budget.

Nevertheless, the former KGB colonel intends to return for a third term as president in March, no matter what it takes. Andrei Illarionov, a close Putin aide before the two fell out in 2005, says Putin feels threatened as never before—and is therefore uniquely dangerous. At home, Illarionov says, Putin's young protégé and successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, "demonstrated signs of independence," forcing Putin to return reluctantly to the throne. And Putin's closest allies and protectors outside Russia—Silvio Berlusconi, Gerhard Schröder, and Jacques Chirac—are no longer in power. "He is convinced that the West cannot wait to put an ugly end to him," says Illarionov.

The fates of Egypt's and Libya's ousted dictators have haunted Putin lately, says Alexei Venediktov, who speaks with the Russian leader regularly as editor in chief of the radio station Ekho Moskvy. He was particularly troubled by the image of "Mubarak's own generals putting handcuffs on him," says Venediktov. "Putin could not comprehend such betrayal." And Putin was hit hard by the defection of his former finance minister and longtime personal friend Alexei Kudrin to the opposition's ranks. "Now Putin understands that the liberals are ready to abandon him," says Illarionov. Russia's "real ruling tandem" of liberals and ex-spooks "has fallen apart."

Putin blames the rising unrest on foreign enemies, especially the U.S. State Department, and portrays himself as defending the Motherland against them. "Americans should know that Putin treats this situation as our 9/11," says Yuri Krupnov, a Putin confidant who heads a pro-Kremlin think tank in Moscow. "This is a moment for tough action…Putin will take power into his hands before March in a way that 80 percent of Russians are going to admire him. Expect some exciting news." Some Russians are bracing for a new war with Georgia; others anticipate a domestic security crisis like the rash of apartment bombings that first brought Putin to power in 1999—bombings that were widely believed to have been orchestrated by the KGB's post-Soviet incarnation, the FSB.

Once started, the protests kept growing, despite all efforts to stop them. Health authorities warned people not to attend rallies because of the risk of flu. Moscow high schools set mandatory Saturday-morning Russian tests, and police let it be known that they would be on the lookout for young men who had dodged the draft. Courts dutifully handed down 15-day jail sentences to protest leaders arrested at an earlier rally for "refusing lawful instructions of police." None of it worked. Rather than try to arrest 100,000 demonstrators in Moscow, Putin wisely allowed them to gather and shout their slogans. "Let them yell and march like they do in Paris" was Putin's logic, says Krupnov. "The protesters will be condemned by their own citizens soon."

Instead, dissent has only spread. Valery Zolotarev, head of the Union of North Urals Miners—hardly a citified weekend radical himself—has announced that his union will not support Putin's candidacy. Protesters have marched through the streets of Novosibirsk with placards calling Putin an "Enemy of the People." Even members of Putin's inner circle have spoken out. "The best part of our society, the most productive part of society, is demanding self-respect," said Vladislav Sur-kov, the Kremlin's longstanding ideological chief and author of the idea of "sovereign democ-racy," the Kremlin's term for its fake elections. "Change is not just coming, it has already taken place. The system has already changed. This is a fait accompli…The tectonic structure of the society has been set in motion."

Surkov was quickly demoted, but others have refused to be silenced. Valery Fadeev, a Putin adviser who edits Expert magazine, praises the protesters as "the best and bravest" of Russia's people. "To keep the peace in the country, the Kremlin will have to outsmart the smartest people in Russia," he warns. Moscow TV personality Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of Putin's old mentor Anatoly Sobchak and an old family friend of Putin's, declared at the Christmas Eve rally: "A lot of these people could afford to just sit on their sofas giving themselves a pedicure. Instead, they came here to protest. That makes me very proud."

The protesters' adversaries can hardly say the same. Some of their efforts have only been crude and reflexive, like the firings at media tycoon Alisher Usmanov's publishing empire in the wake of Kommersant Vlast magazine's critical coverage of the December elections. Others have been laughably embarrassing, like the clumsily doctored photograph that ran in a newspaper distributed by the pro-Putin Popular Front in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg. The picture showed anti-corruption campaigner and protest leader Alexei Navalny supposedly palling around with exiled Boris Berezovsky, a favorite Kremlin bogeyman. The accompanying text accused Navalny of accepting money from Berezovsky to stir up trouble. But within minutes after the photo appeared, bloggers found and posted the original images that had been mashed together, heaping derision on the Popular Front's hamhanded attempt at "black PR."

For Putin the online world is a strange and hostile environment. He regards the Internet with suspicion and knows as little about it as he can, taking obvious pride in the fact that he doesn't even use a computer. Last month he publicly declared that he has "no time for" the Internet or television, both of which he evidently considers to be no more than forms of frivolous entertainment (though he did note that the World Wide Web is used by "a lot of pedophiles"). And sure enough, despite his denials that he would make any effort to censor the Web, the FSB has begun pressuring Pavel Durov, founder of Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, to block opposition pages. All the same, not all of Putin's allies share his disdain for the cybersphere: on Election Day a team of pro-Kremlin hackers attacked the websites of Ekho Moskvy and the Golos election-monitoring think tank.

The one thing Putin doesn't seem ready to do is listen to what the protesters are actually saying. If he did, he'd discover that much of their message is a revolt against rampant official corruption, a problem both he and Medvedev have promised—and failed—to address. Opinion polls (or even a casual browse of Medvedev's Facebook page) show that most Russians' overriding complaint is a response not to Putin himself but to the unmitigated venality of the country's elite. That's what's made the anti-corruption blogger Navalny the clear hero of the protesting crowds rather than any of Russia's longtime opposition politicians. Putin's chief liability is not his nationalistic policies (which most Russians actually agree with). It's his connection to "the party of crooks and thieves" (as Navalny calls the candidate's United Russia party) and to the thoroughly corrupt police force and bureaucracy. Those sticky-fingered associates have sent Putin's popularity plummeting from 80 percent in 2007 to to 42 percent today.

Twenty years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Russia remains no more than half born. It has a semi-free press, free markets, and other trappings of a functional state, but greed reigns supreme. Laws are enforced selectively, and the police often work for the highest bidder. Most of the country's biggest companies have found it necessary to incorporate outside the country, at least in part. Many commercial contracts between Russians stipulate arbitration in foreign courts because Russians can't count on their own judicial system to deliver honest verdicts. in fact, the $5 billion legal battle between Berezovsky and his fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich—said to be the biggest private litigation in the world—is being fought out in London's High Court, not Moscow's.

The whole situation leaves many Russians ashamed and disgusted. "They want to build a new Russia on cynicism, lies, theft, and cruelty," says opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. "But a cesspit is not the best foundation for a house, let alone a whole country." A recent report published by him lists half a dozen old friends of Putin's who have become billionaires over the last 10 years, mostly thanks to government oil- and gas-trading contracts.

So far, the protesters' demands remain relatively modest—if Putin has the guts to meet them. Specifically, they're calling for free and fair elections. "There is a possibility today, without any sort of revolution, to make a transformation to ensure fair elections and real representation in Parliament," Kudrin told crowds at the largest opposition rally so far, on Christmas Eve.

Putin could get away with it, if he chose. Dented as his popularity is, he's still miles ahead of any possible challenger. It's possible that he wouldn't get an outright majority in the first round of a fair vote, but at present there's no one who could beat him in a runoff. A legitimately elected Putin would be the opposition's worst nightmare. But Putin is a man of the shadows; his milieu is the corridors of power, not the political stage. He'd rather steal an election than fight a clean one. Whatever he might think, however, his critics aren't monkeys. And he might do well to remember that Kaa is despised for good reason by all the other creatures.