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First Signs Of Dissent In Moscow After Putin-Medvedev Announce Top Jobs “Swap”

After public endorsements aimed at returning Vladimir Putin to the presidency and making current President Dmitry Medvedev the next prime minister, the first of what may be many protests took place away from the glare of TV by Russians demanding true demo

Medvedev and Putin
Medvedev and Putin
Alisa Ivanitskya and Alexander Chornik

MOSCOW - Usually no more than 20 people bother turning up to the opposition meetings of a group that calls itself ‘The Committee with Five Demands." But the latest gathering in central Moscow's Pushkin Square was different, coming after Dmitry Medvedev's public endorsement Saturday of the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency – and Putin's returning the favor by backing Medvedev for Prime Minister.

Taking place in the central Moscow, far from the glare of the media focused on , the protest saw more than 500 people turn out -- unhappy at their country's stage-managed democracy exemplified by this apparent "swapping" of Russia's top leadership posts. Protesters are expected to get more vociferous in the run-up to next year's elections, jolted into action after Saturday's announcement at the United Russia convention.

The protest committee is a coalition of five movements. Solidarity, the Left Front, the unregistered "Another Russia" party, ecologists, investors who feel cheated and other opposition groups. As their title suggests, the committee that formed last year has five demands: the resignation of the government, recognition that the parliamentary and presidential elections are not legitimate, investigations into corrupt officials, a radical overhaul of the police, and a transparent national budget.

Noticeable at the protest on Sunday were the young people standing either in groups, or on their own. For many, it was their first time at an opposition meeting. It was in contrast to the usual opposition meetings which are overrun by police and media. "I had travel plans for today, but when I found out about the nomination of Putin, I thought: ‘enough's enough!" student Gennady Adentsov told Kommersant.

"I found out about it on the internet and I came. It's my first meeting, I only found out about it in the morning. Even if it's not quite like what I expected to see, I agree with the general idea," Daniel Ostrikov, a student at the British design school said.

End of an illusion

Ilya Yashin, from the Solidarity movement, said he was surprised at the turnout. "Putin has returned, but he never went away," Yashin said, opening the meeting. "Yesterday any final romantic illusions about a political thaw, about liberalization, democracy, modernization have all disappeared."

Yashin then urged those present "not to leave the country," but to shake off their apathy and take to the streets. The crowd started to chant "Russia without Putin!"

Instead of the usual throng of riot squad police at opposition events, there were only a few dozen officers, who did not react to the chanting and slogans.

There were much smaller turnouts last year for opposition actions, including a so-called Day of Fury and the Strategy 31 group (n.b who protest for the right to protest, as guaranteed under the 31st article of the constitution) with their abstract demands for political freedoms. Thus, the 500 people at this action can be considered a serious breakthrough for the opposition.

Sociologists warn that the tandem reshuffle might spur more Russians into protests. It is not because people have more faith in the protest organizers, it simply stems from the nomination of Putin as candidate for Russian president.

"Our research shows the citizens feel the political situation in the country is hopeless," Boris Dubin, of the Levada research center said.

The announcement of Putin's near shoe-in return to the presidency has reinforced this mood: "It is obvious the rotating presidency has shown them that they will have to bury all their hopes in the coming years," says Dubin.

He says the closer to the parliamentary and presidential elections we get, the greater the protests will be. "The situation with the elections leaves no opportunity to make an informed choice. In this situation, people will want to make their voice heard in other ways," Dubin said.

But Alexei Mukhin, a sociologist and director of the political analysis center sounded a note of caution. "A surge in civic activity will quickly come to nothing," Mukhin said. "Putin has all the resources necessary to bribe the electorate, with social allowances and benefits."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

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