Worldview: As Russia votes, the question is: Can Putin change?


MOSCOW - I was trying to interview Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in the Cafe Manya, one of the trendy hangouts where middle-class Russians grab a drink or a $12 cappuccino. But he was besieged by young men and women eager to have their photos taken with him.

All the while, in the tense run-up to Sunday's presidential election, Nemtsov's two cellphones never stopped ringing. He is one of the handful of former liberal politicians, Communists, nationalists, new faces, anticorruption fighters, and journalists who have organized an unprecedented outpouring of opposition to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The outburst was spurred a few months ago when Putin - a former two-term president now serving as prime minister - casually announced he would switch offices with the current president, Dmitry Medvedev. Small demonstrations expanded exponentially, organized on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet, after the Kremlin blatantly rigged parliamentary elections.

Watching the excitement in the cafe, I could only wonder what will happen after the March 4 election. The question is not whether Putin will win - the opposition expects the ballot-stuffing to be egregious, even though Putin could probably eke out a victory without it, given the controlled nature of the contest.

Rather, the burst of debate here - in cafes, on the Internet, on TV talk shows that have suddenly opened up to opposition voices, and in the handful of independent newspapers still permitted to publish - revolves around three questions:

Will Putin crack down on the new opposition after the vote?

Will the Internet generation, new to protest, fold under pressure?

And is it possible that Putin, awakened by the new reality, will recognize that he needs to make real political and economic reforms?

"If Putin thinks he can continue without changing anything, he is deceiving himself," I was told by Konstantin Remchukov, editor-in-chief of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, and long an astute analyst of Russian internal affairs. Remchukov believes Putin ignores the changing values of urban Russian youth, who want more say in how they are ruled.

"It is easier to reform Russia from the top," Remchukov says, pointing to the scattered nature of the opposition. "Putin has several months to one year to indicate he is capable of change." He adds, "If he ignores this time frame, in one year, we'll be very close to Tahrir Square crowds," a reference to the Egyptian youth revolt.

Yet it is hard to see any signs that Putin grasps the significance of the youth rebellion. Journalists who have talked to the leader say he believes he did everything to improve the lives of these young people and now they are ungrateful. Failing to understand the reason, he turns to a familiar explanation: They are manipulated - and funded - by the West.

"There is no way Putin can change," I was told by Yevgenia Albats, the crusading chief editor of the independent New Times magazine. "We have a history of more than 12 years. He has become more of a KGB man than ever." A typical example is Putin's claim that the opposition may assassinate one of its own leaders to try to pin the crime on the Kremlin. This is the kind of cynical warning - we can kill you and then blame you - that sounds like a throwback to Soviet days.

Liberal leader Vladimir Ryzhkov believes Putin will definitely revert to repression. "We don't know if it will be soft or hard," he told me in his spartan basement office. "I do know one thing: Russian civil society has woken up." Contrary to Putin's claims, Ryzhkov says the opposition is funded by small Russian grassroots donations that totaled $200,000 in the last couple of months.

In the Cafe Manya, Nemtsov says he doubts the repression will be dramatically harsh or resemble the tactics used by Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, who permitted protests before elections and then totally shut off all dissent. Putin, he says, does not want to become persona non grata in Europe, like Lukashenko.

Nemtsov believes Putin's approach will be more subtle, permitting pseudo-reforms like registration of new political parties, while propagating new rules that make it impossible for substantial opposition coalitions to emerge.

Efforts will also be made to rein in the Internet - new regulations are under consideration that would let the security services shut down irreverent websites that host new media. However, given the Internet explosion in Russia, with 51 million users, the Kremlin runs the risk of being too heavy-handed.

But Nemtsov recognizes that middle-class youth may be more reluctant to come out into the streets if the Kremlin increases the pressure on them. And if the size of demonstrations dwindles, the Kremlin will feel more free to increase the level of repression.

"One spring is not enough," Nemtsov says. "We need several springs."

As he heads out the door, another group of youths waylays him. I do wonder how long their fervor will last.


E-mail Trudy Rubin