06/13/2012 01:12 PM

The World from Berlin

'Putin Is Transforming Russia into a Police State'

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow on Tuesday in the latest indication that President Vladimir Putin's efforts at oppression are not having their desired effect. German commentators warn that the situation could lead to instability.

Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't much like opposition. That much has become abundantly clear during the last 12 years he has spent as the alpha male of Moscow politics, eight of them as president. For much of his stint at the top, nobody much cared. Prosperity was on the rise and the public allowed Putin to take the credit.

Now, though, the newly prosperous middle class wants a say -- and Putin's heavy-handed refusal to listen has not endeared him to his subjects. The results were on full display on Tuesday in the Russian capital as tens of thousands took to the streets in the first mass protest against Putin since he returned to the presidency in early May.

Notably, the demonstration ended peacefully, free of the violence that marred a similar march on the eve of Putin's inauguration. But the president himself ensured that it attracted plenty of international attention. Last Friday, he signed into law new regulations which drastically limit freedom of assembly rights in Russia and imposes draconian penalties on those who would disobey. Then on Monday, police detained several opposition leaders and raided their homes and offices.

The wave of anti-government protests is a new phenomenon in Russia. Prior to this year, only a few dozen tended to attend marches in opposition to the Kremlin. But Putin's job-swap with now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, combined with reports of voter fraud during spring presidential elections, has not sat well in Russia. The opposition feels emboldened, and has welcomed several new public faces into their ranks of late.

Speaking on Tuesday during Russia Day celebrations, Putin struck an unusually conciliatory note. He noted that differences of opinion were normal in a "free, democratic country" and said "it is important to listen and respect one another, to strive for mutual understanding and to find compromise, to unite our society around a positive agenda." But he also issued a warning to those who would attempt to split society.

German commentators on Wednesday take a look at the most recent protests in Russia.

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The Putin paradox is this: The man who wants a strong Russia is facilitating a weak Russia. His predecessor President Boris Yeltsin made a serious effort to open up the country, integrate it into the global economy and establish a halfway stable legal framework. Because that course … resulted in turbulence, Putin chose the iron fist. In doing so, he contravened everything that could have triggered a positive development. A society that wishes to realize its potential requires the rule of law and effective measures to counter patronage, corruption and nepotism…. A strong society needs a power apparatus that stays in the background. Because this, for whatever reason, is a horrifying thought for Putin, he is gambling away the future that he pledges to serve. He is preventing the transition from a prosperity based on energy to a prosperity based on civil society. He is … preventing the societal and economic empowerment of Russian citizens."

"That is why it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the protests against his course. Although the president has very openly done all he can to penalize all forms of public expression available to society, at least 50,000 people once again took to the streets of Moscow. That is more than standard dissidence. A large portion of the protesters belong to the growing group of those who feel that Putin has robbed them of their future -- a group that has realized that an aging Putin could lead the country into ruin."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Russia is becoming a police state that increasingly often drags in opposition leaders for interrogation and searches their apartments. The country's problems, such as its aged industrial infrastructure, are partly leftovers from the Soviet planned economy. That is not true, however, of Putin's authoritarian leadership style, which he has spent the last 12 years customizing."

"Since March presidential elections, … Putin has been slowly tightening the thumbscrews. It's not just the new laws governing demonstrations, which cut back massively on freedom of assembly rights, but also the increasing 'unexplainable' hacker attacks on critical websites. Together they reveal a clear policy of intimidation. It is not impossible that Putin's chicanery will fundamentally change the culture of protest in Russia. There is a real chance that the educated middle class could give birth to violence."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Following the Tuesday protest, the police tried to play down its significance -- and announced there were 22,000 participants. In fact, there were many more. The numbers show that a change is taking place in Russian society, one which might be slowed by repression, but cannot be stopped. It remains unclear, however, what the results might be. The Tuesday march included democrats of all colors, but also left-wing and right-wing extremists. One would think it would be in the interest of the Kremlin that relatively moderate politicians set the tone for the opposition. On Monday, though, the houses of those moderate politicians were raided. The powers that be apparently prefer confrontation."

Left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Those who lose their say must find ways to draw attention to themselves. In Moscow, it has recently been easy to observe what happens when voters lose their voice. They vote with their feet for the right to free and fair elections. If the right to demonstrate is taken away, their only choices are civil disobedience or a radicalization of the protests."

"It has become obvious how Putin wishes to govern his country. He wants to be neither president nor prime minister, rather he seeks to be the leader of a movement. It is a movement that seeks absolute majorities.... Putin's course, however, is a risky one."

Business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Putin has had tight control for the last 12 years. Following the period of crisis in the 1990s, he pulled the country onto its feet and ensured stability. His policies are to thank for the fact that many investors have done booming business in Russia in recent years. Those investors accept that civil rights might be limited as a result. The simple syllogism has long been: The economy needs stability; Putin provides stability; ergo Putin is good for the economy."

"Businesspeople prefer to stay out of politics as long as it doesn't directly affect their interests. Questions regarding democracy and human rights, uncensored media and freedom of assembly, are avoided. It would merely disturb the business climate; it is the realm of politicians. Now, however, outsiders are forced to look passively on as Putin intimidates the opposition and transforms his country into a police state. Who can stop him? The Russian opposition is too weak."

"In the end, it is the responsibility of economic leaders. They must convince Putin to allow more freedoms and to pursue reform. Otherwise, even more people will take to the streets and Russia will be threatened by instability. And that would scare off investors…. Putin believes that an iron fist guarantees stability. The opposite, however, is true."

-- Charles Hawley


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