Putin Acknowledges Opposition Demands and Stages Pro-Government Demonstration; Friedman Discusses Russian and Syrian Opposition Movements
February 8, 2012
By: Garrett Nada | Printer Friendly
On February 6, the Kommersant daily newspaper published an article containing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s comments on the recent dissatisfaction with the government on the part of the Russian people. The Voice of America (VOA) acknowledged that the government needs to respond to growing public unrest since Russian civil society is “incomparably more mature, active and responsible” than in the past. However, Putin insisted that Russia needs a strong federal government and that a foreign or external model of government is not appropriate.
The article came in response to a mass demonstration held on Saturday, where somewhere between 50,000 to 120,000 people marched in the streets holding banners with anti-Putin slogans. Despite demonstrations in Moscow and other cities over the last two months, the VOA reported that polls still show that Putin is likely to win the upcoming March 4 presidential election. Maxim Tudolubov, editorial page editor of the newspaper, Vedomosti, says street demonstrations are important since the Kremlin only responds to street pressure. The large turnout was significant, especially given the determination of demonstrators to remain outside in temperatures as low as minus 19 degrees Celsius. The Kremlin attempted to cut attendance at the anti-government rally by holding a career training day at the same time, which likely drew a number of attendants since about a third of Moscow’s adult population is between 20 and 30 years old.
The St. Petersburg Times reported that the government held a counter-rally, the first of its kind since demonstrations broke out in December 2011. Despite the cold, some 25,000 supposed government supporters rallied behind Putin, however many of those present were government employees who were forced to go and bused in for the event. Some demonstrators said they were paid or given food for their participation. Putin responded to accusations of orchestrating the rally saying that although government resources may have been used, it would have been impossible to gather that many people on solely “administrative resources.”
On February 7, Thomas Friedman published an op-ed in the New York Times reflecting on his experience at the Saturday demonstration against Putin. He wrote, “Whenever 120,000 people gather to rally for democracy — and you can see your breath and can’t feel your fingers — take it seriously.” While Friedman sees such demonstrations in Russia, Syria, and other places as inspiring, he also has a “pit” in his stomach that “comes from knowing that while the protests are propelled by deep aspirations for dignity, justice and self-determination, such heroic emotions have to compete with other less noble impulses and embedded interests in these societies.”
Friedman referred to Syria as a case in point. He acknowledges that many members of the Syrian opposition may support a democratic and pluralistic system of government, while cautioning people to “have no illusions: Some are also Sunni Muslims — who are the majority there — seeing this as their chance to overthrow four decades of Alawite minority rule. Where win-win democratic aspirations stop in Syria and rule-or-die sectarian fears begin is very hard to untangle.”
For Friedman, the key to democracy, in every part of the world, is trust. He wrote, “You can’t have a democracy without citizens, and you can’t have citizens without trust — without trust that everyone will be treated with equality under the law, no matter who is in power, and without trust in a shared vision of what kind of society people are trying to build.” He cited Iraq as an example of a country still trying to build trust amongst its citizens, which is a difficult process. With that in mind, Friedman believes only a real united opposition front can convince Assad to agree to some sort of peaceful transition. Without trust amongst the various religious and ethnic groups, Syria faces the possibility of a civil war breaking out. He concluded saying that if the Arab world has “any hope of a stable future, we need to bet on them.”
For previous news on Russia and Syria, please see:
Russian Public Continues to Press for Reforms
Syrian Troops Clash with Rebels
VOA - Putin: Russia Must 'Renew Democracy' But Cautiously
VOA - Russia’s Democracy Movement Faces a Test of Strength Saturday
The St. Petersburg Times - Protest Fever Stays High Despite the Cold Weather
The New York Times - Freedom at 4 Below