Putin Web launch ignores Russian protests

January 12, 2012

Ignoring the political upheaval that has shaken Russia over the past month, Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign unveiled a hefty new Web site Thursday that promises a fistful of important reforms but sidesteps the complaints that have drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the streets.

The launch of putin2012.ru leaves Russians with no better idea than before how Putin, the prime minister, intends to address the issues raised by the demonstrations that began shortly after disputed parliamentary elections held Dec. 4.

Five hours after analysts began to point this out, and after commenters posted messages on the site urging Putin to leave the race, the candidate’s press adviser, Dmitry Peskov, told the Echo Moskvy radio station that the site did not represent Putin’s “official” program. He said Putin is still working on that one. This, he said, was a project of the ruling United Russia party.

The state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, however, reported that it had created the site under a contract with the Putin campaign, at a cost of about $35,000.

Many influential people close to Putin have been saying that he has to engage with the issues raised by the protesters, which broadly come down to honest elections and a law-abiding government. Last week, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, made this point publicly.

On Thursday, the Vedomosti newspaper reported that Dmitry Orlov, a Putin political adviser, had written a report for the prime minister arguing that if he doesn’t act to address the protests, he will face a “rapid deconsolidation” of power. Orlov warned Putin that previous Russian rulers — including the last czar, Nicholas II, and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev — had been “dethroned” because of an absence of initiative in the face of mass protests.

Yet so far, Putin has been dismissive of the demonstrations. Nikolai Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Putin and some of those around him would rather do nothing right now in hopes that the protests will slowly die down.

“The less active he is, the better for him,” Petrov said in explaining that attitude, “but because of the presidential election, he is expected to be active.

“He needs to survive these seven weeks. And he thinks then life will become much easier.”

Peskov said Thursday that Putin will not take part in campaign debates between now and the March 4 election because he is too busy, but that he might send a stand-in.

The new Putin Web site promises steps to rein in the police — who, it notes, should be protecting businesses, not fighting them. It also advocates more attention to the tottering health-care system, more support for education, and a system of administrative courts for those who feel unfairly treated by the government. It warns foreign powers not to push Russia around.

But there’s nothing about clean elections or a clean government.

“Elaborating on these issues in his platform would, in a way, mean he recognizes that the political system is in crisis. I think he perceives that as a bad bargaining position,” said Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies. “In his view, that would have presented him as a weaker candidate.”

Putin doesn’t want to appear as if he is acting under pressure from below, Makarenko said, adding, “If and when he offers reforms, they will be a royal gift to the nation.”

On Thursday, Putin’s wealthiest opponent, the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, published an essay in Britain’s Guardian newspaper saying that the era of the system Putin calls “managed democracy” is at an end.

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