Putin Signals New Tolerance For Protest In Russia

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Leokadya Maximova i

Russian retiree Leokadya Maximova, 72, of Kaliningrad says she is struggling to get by on her $265-a-month pension. She says the situation will prompt her to take to the streets with other anti-government protesters. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Leokadya Maximova

Russian retiree Leokadya Maximova, 72, of Kaliningrad says she is struggling to get by on her $265-a-month pension. She says the situation will prompt her to take to the streets with other anti-government protesters.

David Greene/NPR

In Russia, public protests are generally small and often shut down by police. But over the past few weeks, police have not cracked down on a handful of anti-government demonstrations.

And Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently told members of his party that getting feedback from citizens is a good thing.

"We can't just make promises to people and then throw dust in their eyes," Putin said, in the wake of the largest protest so far.

The protest that caught the Kremlin's attention took place Jan. 30.

Between 6,000 and 10,000 people streamed into the streets of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave squeezed between two members of the European Union — Poland and Lithuania.

Next time, 72-year-old Leokadya Maximova says she'll be on the streets demonstrating, too. She's a retired train conductor who wants the government to do better for her than her $265-a-month pension.

Russians should not be afraid to protest and speak their mind, she says.

Mikhail Chesalin helped organize the January rally, and on a recent day in his office, he played video from the rally, where the crowd shouted for Putin to resign.

Calling for the prime minister's ouster is nothing new for Chesalin, who is a local leader of the small leftist party, Patriots of Russia, which often organizes demonstrations. But this crowd swelled like none before, Chesalin said. Everyone seemed to be there: members of the larger Communist Party, even Putin's own United Russia party.

And that's the trend. Protests in Russia are attracting a mainstream audience. That's one reason the Kremlin quickly dispatched envoys to Kaliningrad, to understand how last month's protest came about.

They could get a pretty good idea if they talked to someone like Sergei Ivanchin, a father of two who owns a motorcycle shop in Kaliningrad, and is a member of Putin's United Russia party.

For years, Ivanchin said, he was sold on Putin's promise that discipline and order would eventually bring prosperity. Over time, though, Ivanchin said he grew disappointed. High taxes and bureaucratic hurdles were hurting his business. Everything got worse in these current tough economic times. And finally, Ivanchin's frustration reached the brink.

"They always promise a bright future for us. First it was the communists. Now, it's the United Russia party. Any leaders who come to power, their message is always: 'You just wait. Keep suffering. And maybe in your next life you will be rewarded,'" he said.

But Putin's representatives in Kaliningrad say they're trying to take a different approach.

Aleksandra Smirnova, 31, arrived in Kaliningrad in April 2008 and has been its economic minister since the beginning of 2009. She has seen the recent protests as a window into Russia's politician transition.

People who lived through Soviet times, she said, still don't understand there's only so much the government can do.

"On the one hand, people want to protest. People want to express their opinion. [On] the other hand, there is lack of understanding the budget is fixed," she said.

But another holdover from Soviet times, she said, is that the government in Russia doesn't always listen to the people and act on their needs.

"This is our fault that we don't inform people much, that we don't make social dialogues," she said.

Smirnova made sure to say she wasn't criticizing her boss, the prime minister. But Putin did limit preferences in 2005, when he began appointing regional governments, instead of letting them be elected. Many of the protesters in Kaliningrad and elsewhere have said getting those democratic rights back would be a good first step.

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