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Putin Signals New Tolerance For Protest In Russia

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Putin Signals New Tolerance For Protest In Russia


Putin Signals New Tolerance For Protest In Russia

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. In Russia, public protests are often shut down by police. But in the past few weeks, police have�not�cracked down on a handful of anti-government demonstrations. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said getting feedback from citizens is a good thing.

Prime Minister VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: We can't just make promises to the people, he said, and then throw dust in their eyes. Mr. Putin was speaking in the wake of the largest protest so far. And we have more this morning from NPR's David Greene.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

DAVID GREENE: The protest that caught the Kremlin's attention was at the end of last month.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

GREENE: Somewhere between six and 10,000 people were in the streets of Kaliningrad. It's a lonely Russian enclave squeezed between two members of the European Union: Poland and Lithuania.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

GREENE: I was listening to the sounds from that snowy January day in Mikhail Chesalin's office. He helped organize the rally and was happy to pull up the video.

And so what are they shouting?

Mr. MIKHAIL CHESALIN (Leader, Patriots of Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: What does that mean?

Mr. CHESALIN: To leave this post, to resign.

GREENE: And they're calling for Putin to resign?


GREENE: Calling for the ouster of the prime minister is nothing new for Chesalin. He's a local leader of the small leftist party Patriots of Russia. They often organize demonstrations.

But this crowd swelled like none before, he said. Everyone seemed to be there: members of the larger Communist Party, even Putin's own party, United Russia.

Mr. CHESALIN: It was the first time in Russia when such different parties strengthened their forces together on this meeting.

GREENE: That's the trend. Protests in Russia are attracting a mainstream audience. And 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. He's a father of two, owns a motorcycle shop in Kaliningrad, and is a member of Putin's United Russia party.

Mr. SERGEI IVANCHIN (Owner, Motorcycle Shop): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: 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.

Mr. IVANCHIN: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: 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.

But that's not what you hear from Putin's representatives in Kaliningrad.

Ms. ALEKSANDRA SMIRNOVA (Economic Minister, Kaliningrad): I came to Kaliningrad in April 2008. And I'm a minister since the beginning of 2009.

GREENE: Thirty-one-year-old Aleksandra Smirnova is Kaliningrad's economic minister. She's seen the recent protests as a window into Russia's politician transition. People who've lived through Soviet times, she said, still don't understand there's only so much the government can do.

Ms. SMIRNOVA: From the one hand, people want to protest. People want to express their opinion. From the other hand, there is lack of understanding that the budget is fixed.

GREENE 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.

Ms. SMIRNOVA: It is our fault that we do not inform people much, that we do not make social dialogue. What do you prefer?

GREENE: 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 governors instead of letting them be elected. A lot of the protesters in Kaliningrad and elsewhere have said getting those democratic rights back would be a good first step.

David Greene, NPR News.

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