Moscow, Dec 12: In his dozen years of leading Russia, Vladimir Putin has been the one doing the talking. Now he may have to learn how to be a listener.
The protests against Putin and his party that arose in more than 60 Russian cities on Saturday, including a vast demonstration a few hundred yards (meters) from the Kremlin, appear to have shaken the man accustomed to giving orders, lecturing journalists at marathon news conferences and dismissing dissenters with barbed and occasionally vulgar comments.
Putin had no immediate comment on the demonstrations, which were the largest public show of anger in post-Soviet Russia, but his spokesman made efforts to portray the prime minister as open to criticism.
“We respect the point of view of the protesters. We are hearing what is being said. We will continue to listen to them,” Dmitry Peskov said in a statement late Saturday.
It's unclear how that listening will be done—in actual talks or from a distance—and whether it will be just a disingenuous show until a presidential election in less than three months, during which Putin seeks to return to the post he held in 2000-2008.
But signs of change have already come. State-controlled TV channels gave substantial airtime to the protests, a sharp change from their previously ignoring or deriding the opposition.
If Putin talks with the opposition, it should be done “not with the goal of talks for the sake of talks, hoping that the situation will dissolve by itself, but for finding very meaningful and real compromise,” Yevgeny Gontmakher, an adviser to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, wrote on his blog Sunday.
Medvedev on Sunday promised on his Facebook page that allegations of vote fraud in recent parliamentary elections, the detonator of the nationwide protests, would be investigated. But most of the 2,000-plus comments that flooded in one hour after the post were dismissive, indicating that the opposition would not be satisfied by vague promises from a lame-duck who is widely seen as subordinate to Putin.
Medvedev has agreed to leave office next year, clearing the road for Putin to return as Russia's president. The agreement, announced as a fait-accompli to a congress of the ruling United Russia in September, was widely seen as cynical maneuvering and Putin's political fortunes took a dive.
Surveys from the respected independent polling agency Levada Center showed 42 percent of Russians in late September would have voted for Putin in March's presidential election, but the number fell to 31 percent two months later.
And that was before his image was further tarnished by the Dec. 4 national parliament election, during which United Russia lost a substantial share of seats and observers said even that showing was inflated by vote fraud. Sensing weakness in the party and incensed by the fraud, long-marginalized opposition forces were emboldened to risk the mass protests.
Under Putin, Russian authorities routinely denied opposition groups permission to hold rallies or strangled their effectiveness by limiting attendance to a few hundred. Unauthorized attempts or larger crowds generally brought clashes with police and extensive arrests.
But most of Saturday's protests had official sanction and Moscow officials showed unprecedented largesse by authorizing a crowd of 30,000 -- and not sending riot police into action when the crowd clearly exceeded that number.
That indicated that Putin, if not already listening, is deeply concerned about his weakened position. He had much to lose if he went for the usual strategy of repressing the opposition.
If Putin had chosen a harsh crackdown, he risked international opprobrium that could have brought expulsion from the Group of Eight and the relocation of prestigious events such as next year's APEC summit in Vladivostok and even the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Gontmakher said.
Putin's ability to attract such events has been a key part of the esteem citizens held for him, restoring Russians' sense that their country is again a thriving world power after a long spell of confusion and chaos.
Both sides face a ticking clock.
The opposition has called its next large protest for Dec. 24; in the interim, morale and momentum could fade. Even if determination remains high, the opposition would likely need to mount daily protests, such as those that brought down Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak this year, to force significant changes.
With less than 90 days to go until the presidential ballot, Putin also is under pressure to repair his image and dampen the public discontent. But for all the signs that the pressure may be forcing him to rethink his ways, flashes of his characteristic style also appeared—notably a harsh criticism of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for allegedly instigating protesters and trying to undermine Russia.
In addition, despite protesters' demands to annul the recent parliamentary election and hold a new vote, Putin appears far from acknowledging the vote was questionable.
Peskov's statement noted that the results are now official and added, pointedly: “In the past few days we also witnessed demonstrations by other segments of the population who were supporting those results.”