The President of Russia is Vladimir Vladamirovich Putin. It is true that today he is technically the prime minister, and that his re-election to the Kremlin is due on March 4th, but in the hearts and minds of Russians he already has the title. However, for the first time, Putin faces growing opposition. Eve Irvine and James André went to find out just how widespread that opposition is.
Russia has been rocked by the biggest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. The catalyst was the announcement by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev that they were planning on swapping their powerful positions. This, coupled with suspicions of fraud in December’s parliamentary polls, proved to be the last straw in a system that a growing minority sees as increasingly corrupt.
The backbone of the opposition is Russia’s growing middle class, one that has not been politically active in the past and that is something of a product of the Putin era. Putin created a wealthy circle of friends, but some of the oil and mineral bounty also trickled down to the major cities, creating a well-off urban group which is now demanding a greater say in the country’s future.
'Society is not satisfied with just bread and butter'
Boris Akunin, a renowned Russian author and one of the founders of the "League of Voters" says that this middle class is Putin’s growing problem. “Society is not satisfied with just bread and butter; they want more, they want respect, they want to have a say in what’s happening in the country. So that’s why I think there is no way back; Mr Putin may be re-elected or not re-elected, it's not going to change,” he says.
A trip to the town of Korolyov, just over an hour north of Moscow, appears to proves his point. Irina Moreva is the editor of a local free newspaper called "Evening Korolyov". She and her husband Yuri have fought corruption on a local level for many years. They managed to get the local mayor forced out of office when they highlighted his misuse of funds. However, they still complain of the ongoing daily use of bribes to get medical treatment or a place for one's child in a good school. The day we visit them there is a pro-Putin rally in town.
Yuri points out that in his opinion, the protesters have mostly been paid or pressurised into taking part. This is a claim we have been hearing from many sides and indeed during our trip we meet with the director of a children’s centre, Yelena Travina. She says she was asked to hand in her resignation after failing to supply eight of her staff for the pro-Putin rally of February 4th.
“The head of regional education made it clear that she was going to the rally and that she was from United Russia. She said she wanted us to be present and told us all to be there. She said that if anyone did not want to go that they should talk to her directly,” Yelena says. When her case gained media attention the authorities told her she could keep her job, but with the sour atmosphere Yelena says she still felt forced to leave.
'I'm going to vote for the lesser of all evils'
Back in Korolyov, a few dozen locals, heavily clad in fur, try to dance away the frost of minus 7 degrees and show their support for the Prime Minister who is increasingly under pressure. We ask them why they support Putin. “I’m going to vote for the lesser of all evils. I trust only Putin, because he’s at least doing something! The rest are talking gibberish,” one woman tells us. A man next to her adds that “political parties come and go but we only have one president.” A lot of the people who tell us they are voting for Putin seem to feel that they simply have no choice.
Having said that, Putin retains widespread support, notably among the working class, a group expected to be the main force behind his political survival. We travel to Tula, south of the capital, where everyone we speak to pledges to vote for Putin. For locals here, the protests against him come from a wealthy sub-sector of society that is detached from the reality of Russia’s majority. “These people have houses abroad, their children are going to prestigious universities abroad, we cannot afford this kind of opportunity…if this is what they want I say good luck to them, but they should not forget that we are the majority and we want to live a nice quiet life,” Nadezhda Trachuk, who runs the gingerbread museum in Tula, tells us.
The opposition in Russia is starting to take form, but as yet there is no candidate who has garnered enough support to unite all of that opposition. Putin will almost certainly get another six years in the president's office. What’s new is that for the first time ever, he is faced with a public that is politically aware and is starting to find its voice.