Putin Faces Russia's Cold Winter

VIDEO: Protestors are calling for free elections and change at the Kremlin.

(Misha Japaridze/AP Photo)

Reporter's Notebook

Vladimir Putin take note: Among the balloons, ribbons, flowers and placards in the huge crowd gathered today on Moscow's Sakharov Prospect to urge you not to run for a third term as President, one stood out. It showed you standing next to Libya's now-dead dictator, Muammar Gadhafi. The Russian words on the sign, "YOU ARE GOING ALONG THE SAME ROAD, COMRADE."

It is impossible to miss the meaning of the message. Leaders who abuse their position can face unpleasant ends.

Arab Spring, meet Russian Winter.

It is not clear where the anti-Putin protest movement is going, but the staggering size of today's rally suggests it is gaining momentum. The official tally by the Russian government puts the crowd at 29,000. But, of course, the Putin government has every reason to underestimate the crowd. Other estimates put the crowd at somewhere between 56,000 and 100,000. By most accounts it was at least twice as big as the first anti-Putin rally held two weeks ago.

The number of people here today is particularly impressive when you mingle among them. It is biting cold here; a damp penetrating cold that no amount of clothing seems adequate to resist. Standing, shivering in the same place for four hours listening to speeches and music on a day like this is a true test of democratic ideals.

"Our goal is not only to push out certain people from power," liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinksy told the crowd from a stage adorned with banners reading "Russia Will Be Free."  Then he added, " Our goal is to change the system that we have today, which is corrupt, venal, closed and illegitimate."

"Russia without Putin," the crowd chanted in response. The once-and-future president may have thought that he could sail effortlessly into a third term, sealing his position as an autocrat with a sham election, but these demonstrations make it clear many of the Russian people have had enough.

There is a widespread sense that Putin is all about himself and his friends, that he does not care about rampant corruption or the collapse of agriculture, education or  healthcare.

"From the very top level to the very small level, corruption is everywhere," Katia, a 25-year-old mother attending her first protest, tells me. She says in the past she would have been afraid to come to a demonstration like this because police might have beaten her, but the scale of today's rally has given her a sense of security. "Now because everyone is together, people feel supported and they have lost their fear. That is very important."

While past Russian Revolutions have been spearheaded by the poor and the working man, this New Revolution (if it becomes that) is much more diverse. Among the protesters are well-dressed professionals who began to prosper under Putin, but have seen their wealth and their freedoms erode in recent years. They stand next to students and pensioners. All of them united in their anger towards Putin and his cronies.

"The people realize that they are not treated properly, that they are treated like fools, and no one wants to be a fool," Russian political analyst  Andrey Kortunov says as we walk in the snow along the banks of the Moscow River, which winds through the city. Behind us are the gleaming office towers of Moscow's new financial district, a symbol of the staggering wealth assembled by the so-called "oligarchs" after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

That happened  20 years ago this month. Since then Russians have become infamously politically passive. What ignited this new sense of indignation was  clearly documented fraud by Putin's United Russia party during the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Putin's party lost 77 seats, but still retained a majority. Few believe he could have achieved that without cheating.

Initially the protesters wanted the parliamentary election re-run, which is clearly not going to happen. Now their message is for Putin directly: Don't run for a third term as president on March 4, 2012. If he does, he will almost certainly win. He has purged opposition parties of any serious challengers, so there is no legitimate unifying alternative to him on the ballot.

Putin was president for two terms, from 2000 to 2008. The constitution does not allow three consecutive terms, so he deftly handed the presidency to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev for the last four years while he became prime minister. Now he can run for two more terms and Putin and Medvedev have conveniently changed elections to every six years. In theory Putin could be in charge of Russia until 2024. That is a suffocating prospect to the shivering crowd here in Moscow and to many more Russians watching them on TV, online and following them from afar.

Putin's own former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, has joined the anti-Putin protest movement.

"Russia is not a democracy," he says. "Russia has never been a democracy, but Russia started to build up democracy. In the last five years, Putin has destroyed all the foundation that we had been building. We don't have free media, we don't have independent judiciary and we just lost the final part: free elections. This autocratic way of ruling is unacceptable."

But Putin has given no signals that he gets the message. Instead, he appeared on national TV a week ago and dismissed the first protest saying: "I know the young people were paid to attend." He accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of footing the bill. Then he crassly dismissed the white peace ribbons the protesters wore, saying he thought they were condoms.

Today, the protesters fought back with dark humor of their own. Some wore condoms on their lapels, one sported a sign saying,  "Hillary, I'm still waiting for my money."

But more than anything they answered Putin in numbers. This protest was so big, so well-organized, so peaceful that Putin ignores it at his peril.

Organizers say there will be a third anti-Putin rally, probably in late January. And they vow they will get even more people onto the streets.

It's going to be an interesting winter in Russia.

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