Media Conference Call: Why the Russian Protests Matter

Media Conference Call: Why the Russian Protests Matter

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Elections and Voting

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ANYA SCHMEMANN: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us. This is Anya Schmemann. I'm the director of communications at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And I'm very pleased to be joined by a colleague this morning, Steve Sestanovich, who is the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's also the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He served as U.S. ambassador at large for the Soviet Union (sic) from 1997 to 2001 and has been a longtime Russia watcher. Steve, it's good to have you with us this morning.


SCHMEMANN: So we are all watching the developments in Russia with bated breath. Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, what are we to make of demonstrations in Russia and the feelings of apparent resentment there? Is this a "Slavic Spring," a Russia awakening? And what led to these outbursts? If you could just give us a general overview, and then we'll turn to questions in a couple minutes.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, everybody is poring over this question to try to figure out -- (chuckles) -- how we missed it because a lot of people did miss it, and we shouldn't have because there are plenty of factors that had been pointing toward this result for a while. And let me just mention four really quickly, and then we can -- we can turn to other issues.

Ironically, I think one of the things that has contributed as a factor is Putin's success. You know, he has actually presided over a kind of restabilization of Russian life, of somewhat prosperity, household incomes going up over 10 percent for the previous decade. It's gotten to the point where he doesn't himself seem like an essential factor of stability, which many people would have thought -- would have grudgingly acknowledged, say, five, six years ago. They would have said Putin did this. Now they think Putin may be in the way.

And that's the second factor, which is his indifference and brazenness.

Polls show 80 percent of -- and more of Russians think the authorities are corrupt; 75 percent want a real opposition. We always say Russians don't care about democracy, but in fact, polls show that's not the case.

And in the face of this, Putin has done very little to deal with corruption, to allow real politics. The run-up to this election was one in which oppositionists were harassed; parties were not allowed to register; some parties that were formed were manipulated; and the spectacle of it was of leaders expecting the people to go to the polls and vote for them just as in Soviet days. And that stuck in people's craw.

A third factor that I'd mention and I don't think gets mentioned enough -- and that is Medvedev's own encouragement. We treat Medvedev -- and with some justice -- as a kind of a semicomical figure in Russian politics. And yet, over the past four years, he has been oddly a kind of voice for reform and a critic of Putinism, even though Putin is his best friend and mentor, and I think that has had an effect. Medvedev is a tremendous advocate of the Internet. The Internet has been where -- (chuckles) -- a lot of opposition has grown up.

And finally the elections themselves as a spark. This is frequent -- and allegations of fraud and manipulation in the -- in the count and in the conduct of the elections -- this has frequently happened elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and, you know, was sort of waiting to happen in Russia. This was especially likely given the way in which Putin and Medvedev had prepared the campaign with this announcement of Putin's return as president.

You know, Putin presented this purely as his own decision, and no one else was consulted. And the result is what you've seen.

SCHMEMANN: So despite the apparent effort to pad the election results, Putin's party actually did quite poorly in the parliamentary elections. So in your --

SESTANOVICH: Actually, let me just say one thing about that.


SESTANOVICH: Because I think it's interesting: Typically, in the count during an election -- I mean, literally the evening of an election, if there -- at points where the ruling party has been in trouble, there has been an effort -- and people have looked at this -- to push the numbers up. And we didn't see that this time.

I thought, when I first saw that the numbers were going to be 49 percent, that surely the word would go out: Get it above 50 (percent), and that didn't happen. And I think it shows a loss of confidence that you can actually make orders like that stick without creating new problems and outrages.

The Putin people had been -- in the week before the election, seen that election officials were giving background anonymous interviews to the press about how they resented manipulation, how they thought the election was going to be a farce. And I think that made people a little bit nervous about trying to push fraud even beyond what it was. And there are many reports subsequently of the way in which the padding took place.

SCHMEMANN: So Putin has clearly been weakened, though. His poll numbers have fallen. His party didn't do as well as he had hoped. What are the prospects for his upcoming presidential election in March?

Has this dealt him a fatal blow? Will he recover? What are the possible scenarios for that election?

SESTANOVICH: It is much too early to say this is a fatal blow, although it is a blow. And it will be interesting to see what kind of balance he has managed to maintain when he goes on the air tomorrow in one of his marathon live Q&A sessions.

You mentioned his numbers going down, Anya. They are -- the polls are getting to be much -- getting to report much more disparate numbers when it comes to Putin's popularity or approval rating. It used to be they were all in the 70s and 80s except when they were -- you know, dipped into the 60s. But now we're seeing numbers that are in the 30s and 40s. I don't know whether this shows bolder polling, less official pressure, or genuine -- a genuine surge in popular disenchantment. Probably all of those.

In the run-up to this presidential election, the crucial question for Putin is going to be can he coast to a first-round victory or even eke out a first-round victory, as he did in 2000 and 2004. Not getting a 50-percent-plus vote in the first round will be seen as a tremendous humiliation for him. And I'm certain that the people in the Kremlin are asking themselves whether they can actually -- how to make that happen.

There are many candidates out there who have the potential to get in the 10-percent range.

And if you add -- and some of them have, you know, a credible chance of getting over 20 percent. You add those up, and it -- the numbers look -- make it look harder for, you know, a Putin path to victory in the -- in the first round.

That will mean a lot of pressure on candidates to get out. It will mean pressure to deny registration, placing them on the ballot. Two million signatures are necessary. People will be harassed. Signatures will be challenged. There are some key figures that they may want to keep off the ballot, but they also are going to be nervous about just what the total looks like.

There will be strong discouragement of any efforts to fund opposition movements. One of the things that Putin has been very successful at is discouraging the Russian wealthy and the middle class from contributing to opposition movements. Will that hold now? Will it be easy to contribute now, or will the -- will the -- will the regime be successful in discouraging people at this point?

Will weather -- (chuckles) -- play a role? Some people have said this is a bad time to be trying to generate popular mobilization. It's true, but it's also a time when Russians tend to be angry. Russian elections in December have often produced angry results.

That's when Zhirinovsky won. It's a time where you can get significant protest votes.

Organization and mobilization are difficult in this period in Russia, in the next several months, but the popular mood may be with the opposition.

SCHMEMANN: A last quick question and then we'll open it up. You mentioned the middle class. Is this the long-awaited awakening of the slumbering and passive and complacent -- historically -- urban middle class in Russia? And how important is their participation in these protests?

SESTANOVICH: Well, it's crucial because the big cities in Russia have generally been where political outcomes have been decided. All of the -- you know, the Russian revolutions of the 20th century took place in the big cities, in the capital, in Moscow and Petersburg. And what has happened over the past 20 years is that urban movements essentially shrank, and people who had been prepared to go on the streets in '90 and '91 were no longer prepared to do that.

Now you've got people ready to come back, it seems, and there hasn't really been much doubt of their political preferences. Moscow and Petersburg have generally over the past 20 years been centers of liberal opinion, reformist outlook, but they haven't really managed to generate significant movements. If that has changed, that is a really big event in Russia politics.

And it means -- it isn't just related to getting organization on the -- on the streets.

It relates to things like funding. You know, there have been successful efforts at online fundraising. It relates to media coverage. Are people going to be emboldened to restore the era of glasnost, to remember how important it was to the collapse of the Soviet Union that the media began to challenge the authorities? If you have a kind of break in discipline and censorship just ends up being relaxed, that too will create a new atmosphere.

The middle class has felt neglected over the past 20 years, even as, over the past 10 years, they've come to feel again more secure, more entitled, more empowered and sort of ready to assert themselves again.

So if that's happening, it's very big.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Well, certainly the world is watching and that, in and of itself, may be something that will help change.

Operator, I think we're ready now to go to some questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, ladies and gentlemen, we will open the floor for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from James Kitfield from National Journal.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, thanks for doing this. I'm just curious whether -- I mean, I want to believe here that this is -- this is a sort of -- we're crossing a Rubicon here, but I just wonder whether what we're seeing is letting off a little steam, but that Putin will move sort of aggressively to, you know, recapture, you know, the authoritarian apparatus in the spring and that this is -- this is sort of a tactical shift in tactics, but not a strategic sort of pivot point.

Am I -- am I wrong to be weary of that? Or give me your sense of optimism here.

SESTANOVICH: You are absolutely right to be watching that. And the question is how successful he'll be at it. I don't think there's much doubt that he will try.

But I point to a couple of things. One is just the accident of the calendar. You know, across the former Soviet Union you've had these things called color revolutions, which have been these outbursts of protests at manipulated elections.

But by and large, I mean, those are the successful cases. Mostly protests after elections have sizzled out because the opposition realizes, you know, we're not quite powerful enough to take charge, we can't get the elections to run again, we don't have elections coming for a while. We aren't going to be in the parliament. We're not really an ongoing, permanent grassroots movement. And so things tend to dissipate, and as you say, the authoritarian apparatus reasserts itself.

This is a little different because -- partly because you've got this next election just months away, and that's a target for people. One of the things that's -- that will be interesting to watch -- this is separate from the authoritarian apparatus -- is whether the opposition sees it that way. I've already heard some liberal opposition figures saying, you know, the presidential election is going to be a farce. Maybe we shouldn't take part in it. This is always a problem for oppositionists when they're trying to decide how to challenge the regime. But there is every reason to be skeptical about how much, you know, Putin and his entourage will tolerate.

As I said earlier, they will try to keep people off the ballot. They will try to break up organizations. They will try to discourage funding. They will use lots of means -- every means, really, at their disposal to keep this from getting out of hand.

But you know, the momentum in political confrontations like this -- this can be hard to control even with measures of that sort. And while the Putin -- the Putin regime has been very successful at keeping control, they haven't really had to deal with any challenge like this. And that's a problem for them. They're not really experienced, just as the Soviet system was not experienced at dealing with real opposition. And they are going to have to reach back for more inventiveness and resourcefulness than they've shown in the past because this is the biggest challenge they've faced.

SCHMEMANN: (Inaudible.)

QUESTIONER: Could I follow up?

SCHMEMANN: We actually have a number of people in queue, James (sp). So can I ask you just to get back in the queue again?



Just for the benefit of any latecomers, this is an on-the-record CFR media briefing with Steve Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan senior fellow -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- for Russian and Eurasian studies.

Operator, we'll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Natalie Nougayrede from Le Monde.

QUESTIONER: Yes, thanks for this opportunity. I wanted to ask you, Stephen, whether -- how you assess the reaction in the West to these events in Russia and what should be the message that Europe and the U.S. could be sending out.

We've heard a lot of anti-Western rhetoric coming from Putin recently, and it seems to have strengthened. Would it help for the U.S. or European states -- France, Germany -- to sort of kick in and express support for the demands of those who've been demonstrating in Russia?

SESTANOVICH: Well, Western governments are always torn about this, and it's not because their heart isn't in the right place. It's that they don't know what will have the right effect.


SESTANOVICH: And you're right to ask the question; will it just give Putin the opportunity to say the opposition is entirely sponsored by the West?

He had some success with that theme four years ago, his famous Munich speech. The parliamentary campaign of 2007 was very much one that pointed liberal opposition as Western spies. It may be that that's just a trope that is not going to work as well in the future. We'll have to see.

But in any case, the right line for Western governments is not: You've got to have a free and fair election because we want it. It's: We hear the Russian people speaking and we know that the Russian government has taken on obligations to, you know, respect democratic norms because it wants to be part of Europe, it wants to be part of the community of Western democracies; and if that is to -- you know, is to have any meaning, if those obligations have any meaning at all, then this is a time when free and fair elections are necessary.

You know, in the '90s the Russian government took on all these obligations. Now is when they're going to have to, you know, test the seriousness of them.

I think speaking out on this has to be done carefully, but it has to be done. And the -- finding the right rhetorical form isn't impossible. I'm sure that if Prime Minister Berlusconi were still in office, he would be endorsing Putin for president. (Chuckles.) But you know, others don't have to do that. And I think it's likely that most governments will find their voice. And I think there will be a resonance in Russia.

QUESTIONER: Thanks for that.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

Operator, we'll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Harold Evans from Thomson Reuters?

QUESTIONER: How far do you regard -- (inaudible) -- regard the other potential presidential contenders as merely ploys or distractions arranged by the Putin regime?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, it's a good question. And I think here, too, one needs to be wary and skeptical but not miss a new situation. A lot of attention has focused on Mr. Prokhorov, who is somebody who does not like to go to war with the Kremlin.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, yeah.

SESTANOVICH: But the Kremlin went to war with him this summer, and it caused him to be ousted as the leader of his party that they'd basically encouraged him to take over.

And I think the issue that we want to try to understand is whether they made a permanent enemy for themselves in Prokhorov and will, you know, regret it, or whether he is still their guy. And we don't know the answer to that, but we shouldn't presume that the kind of control over oligarchs that we've seen in the past is a permanent fact of Russian life. That may have been an asset once; it may no longer be.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

SESTANOVICH: I'll give you a couple of other examples. The three parties that were elected into the Duma besides United Russia were the Communists, the Liberal Democrats of Zhirinovsky, and a party called Just Russia, led by Sergei Mironov. These have been very docile oppositionist parties.

But -- so docile, for example, that Zhirinovsky doesn't always run for president. He, you know, can -- if he thinks the outcome is not necessary or the occasion doesn't call for him to involve himself, he can let one of his minions run. I would bet that the Kremlin will want to try to keep Zhirinovsky out, because he's somebody who can get 10 to 15 percent of the vote and challenge their 50 percent. There may be some leaning on the other candidates.

These parties, as I've said, have been docile oppositionists. But, maybe in this moment, they will feel that they have an opportunity to assert themselves more fully and in fact can't do anything other than assert themselves more fully.

So we shouldn't assume that the same kind of control that has served the Kremlin well in the past will still be available to them.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

SCHMEMANN: Thanks. And just to clarify, Zhirinovsky is leader of the Nationalist Party.

We'll take another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Robin Hessman from Red Square Productions.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Steve and Anya. Thanks so much for doing this. I have a question about what this might signal as far as Internet freedom, coming up towards the election. We saw at this election that Golas (ph) had issues, Bolshoi Gorda (ph) had issues, LiveJournal did. Do you think that the control will expand for all of a sudden larger firewalls appearing in Russia? You know, they may be blocking Facebook, which they don't have legal jurisdiction over. I'd love to hear your thoughts about that.

SESTANOVICH: I'm not an expert on that, but it has been something that I've tried to watch a little bit over the past six months. There have been efforts of the kind that you mentioned, and in particular on the day before an election day, but they have been rather timid and tentative. And those efforts will create a firestorm when they -- when they are exposed. And so the regime, in the same way that it tries to calculate the pros and cons of giving permits for demonstrating, will try to calculate the pros and cons of restricting Internet access. They don't want to create new causes of outrage that go beyond the benefits of limiting the opposition.

The people that I've read and heard commenting on the overall approach to the -- to Internet control, suggest that, you know, the Russian authorities have been -- have been hesitant to try to go too far here.

And the result has been that the Internet has, all in all, probably been a pretty effective tool of opposition groups.

It's certainly where Alexei Navalny, who's become a kind of -- you know, one of the leading oppositionist celebrities -- it's how he became known. He's described as, you know, the liberal blogger -- liberal nationalist blogger, I think we should -- we probably have to add because he's got a complicated set of political views. He has made himself a national figure through the Internet.

SCHMEMANN: Yeah, Steve, what else can you tell us about Alexei Navalny? He's obviously a popular blogger. As you've mentioned, you know, some call him liberal, but in fact he's shown some nationalist sympathies. Is he someone that the opposition can rally around?

SESTANOVICH: Well, he has not tried to be a politician until very recently. He has been an exposer of official crimes. And he has developed a kind of access to and sources within the -- within the regime who feed him information about corruption. And he was actually pretty successful in exposing a number of scams. He -- and also, incidentally, when I mentioned fundraising, he's somebody who's been able to do that online.

He was jailed in connection with the demonstrations right after the elections and sentenced to 15 years -- I mean 15 days, which alone have made him even more of a hero to some people. He's in his late 30s, a lawyer, I believe, somebody who has elicited comparisons to Boris Yeltsin as a kind of -- somebody who seems like a man of the people, who's got a reformist orientation and is tough and can take the authorities on. It's a combination of traits that make people think of him as a future leader.

Whether this is his moment, whether he will just try to make himself a candidate, I don't know. He probably is in quite a good position, in terms of recent notoriety, to get the 2 million signatures that you need to be on the ballot, but he may not have the organization to do it, other than his online notoriety. And he may defer to others. But he has become a powerful voice, there's no doubt about it.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. We'll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Alexander Gasyuk from Russia's Gazette.

QUESTIONER: Good morning. I was wondering, what is your take on the impact of Duma election results on overall U.S.-Russian relations? As you know, the Russian opposition parties, which you have mentioned a little bit earlier, have made big gains during the elections, but at the same time, almost all of Russian opposition parties are quite critical about what the U.S. does, especially when it comes to Russia.

Certainly Russian Duma plays much less role, when it comes to foreign policy, than, for instance, U.S. Congress, but nevertheless, I would like to hear what is your take on that. Thank you.

SESTANOVICH: Well, the Duma itself has been a forum for, you know, occasional anti-American rhetoric, but it has, you know, until, I mean, up till now, been pretty pliant and done what the -- what the government has wanted. And I don't really expect that to change, particularly since there are not a lot of issues that will be controversial that come before the Duma. You know, a foreign policy issue that has to arise in the next couple of months will be whether Russia enters the WTO, and that has to be ratified by the parliament.

I can't think of too many other issues that are relevant there. In a --

SCHMEMANN: But Steve, on this issue of relations with Russia --


SCHMEMANN: -- I mean, Putin came out criticizing the United States, Secretary of State Clinton in particular, for interfering and meddling. What are we to make of that?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. Well, we should make of it that Putin remembers that that worked for him in the past and will try it again. I haven't heard a Russian say that that seems likely to be a potent theme for the future. And it was something that was derided at the demonstrations last weekend. Everybody made fun of the idea that they were out there on the streets because, as Putin said, Hillary Clinton had given them a signal. You know, that theme of interference is one that authoritarian regimes always use when they want to question the patriotic bona fides of their opponents.

But often themes like that, which have one -- once had some value and had value particularly when there was more control of the media, you know, lose their zing. And I think this is something to watch. It may be that Putin can make some use of that. But if in the media, that is treated as a sign of desperation and foolishness and of loss of contact with reality, then Putin may drop it.

But the question was also about the attitude of opposition parties toward the United States. You're absolutely right that they're quite -- those views are mixed. And certainly Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky are not great friends of the West. But there's a -- there's a broader spectrum now, and I think we'll hear a variety of views. Typically in moments like this, though, foreign policy issues tend to disappear, and the rhetoric and the -- and the -- and the internal debate are focused on, you know, questions of power and the -- and the issue of legitimacy of the different political forces. So I would be surprised if relations with the U.S. mattered a lot in the next several months.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Vivian Oswald from Globo newspaper, Brazil.

QUESTIONER: Hello, please. I would like to have your impressions on what are the alternatives for the Kremlin right now to calm people down and how to interpret the resignation of Duma president Boris Gryzlov today.

SESTANOVICH: Yes, the alternatives available to them -- (chuckles) -- I can promise you that people are working noon and night to come up with a plan for the election campaign, and we will see some of those -- the fruits of that late night memo-writing and brainstorming in Putin's question-and-answer session tomorrow.

You know, he has got to basically make a choice, but broadly, I would say, between "we hear you" and "we are not listening." (Laughs.) And that is to say, between an -- a conciliatory line, which tries to assure people that, in a new Putin presidency, he will be trying to advance some of the same goals as the opposition or, on the other hand, a pugnacious approach which tries to suggest that the opposition is going to destabilize Russia, threaten its prosperity, weaken its unity and so forth.

Putin is pretty good at combining different themes when necessary, but he's somebody who, you know, hasn't really been tested by competitive politics in a long time. A lot of people in the West have acquired this idea that Putin is a kind of political genius.

You know, he's been a political genius in a game where the rules have been completely dictated by him. And that's an easier game to win.

So I think the -- how they develop their strategy over the next several months is -- is, you know, something that they will maybe -- first of all, quite undecided about now, and they may change strategies as they see what works.

Let me mention two other approaches that people have talked about as available to the Kremlin. One is -- which is common in the run-up to elections in many countries, and that is a binge of social spending and benefits to various constituencies, increasing (teacher/future ?) salaries, increasing pensions and so forth. There's been a lot of that under Putin, and it will surely be tried again. How effective it is and how much support it gains within the -- even within the government is an issue, because there is -- you know, there's a lot of unhappiness within the -- within the government about Putin's fiscal policies.

Another approach is increasing military spending, spending on the police, in order to make sure that the forces of order and control are loyal to the government.

And, you know, that has been, certainly, a strategy pursued by Putin over the past year: big increases for the so-called power ministries. About --

SCHMEMANN: Steve -- yes.

SESTANOVICH: -- about Gryzlov, I wouldn't think that's very important, except that the leader of United Russia, after United Russia does badly, is -- you know, can be made a scapegoat. He's not a very consequential figure either in Russian politics at large, or really even in Russian policy-making.

SCHMEMANN: It looks like he was asked to step down to sort of deflate public opposition. And Medvedev also announced that there would be an inquiry into the elections.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. I meant to tell you --

SCHMEMANN: One other --

SESTANOVICH: -- here's one thing, though, that it does probably signify, although it doesn't tell us how they'll handle it. And that is offering the speakership to an opposition figure. You know, Mironov, for example, is somebody who could easily be lured into dropping a presidential campaign by saying, you know: We'll make you the speaker of the Duma.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Margaret Warner from PBS NewsHour.

QUESTIONER: Oh, hi, Steve. Thanks for doing this.


QUESTIONER: I came in a little late, so forgive me if you've covered this. But do the same analysis, if you could, about the options for the opposition now. I mean, other than planning for this new demonstration on the 24th, what are the choices facing them?

SESTANOVICH: Well, the -- they're different for different groupings. I mean, you could say that the -- for the parties like the Communists, the Liberal Democrats, the Just Russia, the question is: what kind of campaign, how determined, whether it's a pulling-out-all- the-stops effort to wage.

And for the liberal opposition, the real choice is how much they try to unite, and do they create an umbrella organization that brings together the various strands of this opposition movement -- Nemstov's Solidarity, Yavlinsky's Yabloko, Navalny's sort of online constituencies; the Party of people's Freedom that was denied registration last summer -- Parnas it's called -- which is made up of Kasyanov, the former prime minister, Vladimir Ryzhkov, the former parliamentarian.

Do those people find a way of uniting around a single candidate, or do they run multiple candidacies, as many as they can get?

It's typical in our analyses of liberal opposition efforts in countries in the former Soviet Union to think that everything depends on their being united. This -- that may not actually be true this time because the real question is -- the big question, I think, for the next several months until the first round of the presidential election in March is can you whittle down Putin's vote to under 50 percent.

And more candidates may actually be better there. I don't have any trouble coming up with a total of 50 percent for oppositionistsa 1s if you get an all-out effort by the communists, Zhirinovsky and so forth and several liberal candidates. I think it gets a lot harder if you see the established parties not waging a serious campaign, and you -- and you find the liberals kind of petering out and having most of their candidates knocked off the ballot for, you know, signature irregularities and that sort of thing.

SCHMEMANN: Stephen, can you just explain the mechanics of that election? So the first round -- if 50 percent isn't reached, then the two top candidates run off against each other?

SESTANOVICH: Yes, they run off two weeks later, I believe. Or it used to be two weeks later. It may be -- I think that's right. And there are, you know, not all that many other rules. There is a 2 million signature requirement, and I believe there has to be some distribution across the many territorial jurisdictions of Russia. There are some limits on spending and contributions, but those are never observed except by -- (chuckles) -- weaker parties. And there are provisions for debates. And that almost never materializes in the form of a real debate between the incumbent and opponents, although there are often debates among the opponents.

What else did you have in mind, Anya, that --

SCHMEMANN: No, that helps. Thanks.

Operator, if you could just give a reminder about how to queue in, and then I know James Kitfield wanted to come back with a question, so if we could go to him.

OPERATOR: Certainly. (Gives queueing instructions.) QUESTIONER: I'm just going to get you to go a little further on how this affects the sort of U.S.-Russian reset. I mean, the -- you know, you described it as being sort of tactical in his sort of blasting away at Clinton, which I agree with. But I mean, could it not really lead to a pretty frosty period of relations with us, especially when you see how they're digging their heels in on missile defense? There seems to be sort of a chill in the relation already.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, it's not so different from what you had three, four, five years ago when Putin was, you know, very bristly about the missile defense efforts of the Bush administration and rejected various proposals made to him by visiting delegations of Defense and State Department officials. There were criticisms of the, you know, efforts to build the sanctions regime against Iran and -- you know, and a sort of general rhetoric about interfering in Russian affairs. You know, that subsided, although it certainly got very nasty after the Russian-Georgian war.

Typically, election years are a period when you -- when you don't have particularly warm Russian-American relations because the domestic politics of both sides offer opportunities for contentious rhetoric. I just wouldn't take for granted that we're headed exactly in that -- in that direction. The whole idea that Russia is isolating -- isolated itself from the West may not play as well as it -- as it used to.

I mean, I think there will -- even in the course of the reset, there have been -- there's been a lot of Russian foot-dragging about support for the U.S. on Iran. But it has generally gone along with most of the measures that the United States wanted to take.

And, you know -- so I think one should look at this issue by issue and not assume that you'll get a -- you know, a true deep freeze. But broadly speaking, your question is right and the observation is right. Russian-American relations have been kind of cyclical over 20 years: high hopes, followed by disappointment and acrimony, and then a decision on both sides to put aside the disappointment and acrimony and try to find something practical to do. And then high hopes are restored -- (inaudible).

SCHMEMANN: All right, let's see if we can fit in a few more quick questions and responses.

Operator, we'll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Garrett Mitchell from The Mitchell Report.

SCHMEMANN: Hi, Garrett.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Hi -- (inaudible). And Steve and Anya, thanks for doing this. And I also came in very late, so if this has been covered, I'll just, you know, read about it in the -- in the transcript. I'm reminded by today's announcement that Time's Person of the Year is the protester, and here we are in yet another venue where protesters are the news.

I'm wondering to what extent social media have -- has been a factor. And as an aside, I would -- I would say that we know that that was attributed to be one of the major factors particularly in Egypt, but reports coming from Egypt after the overthrow of the president and in this phase suggest that social media are much less of a factor than they were in the sort of more revolutionary portions of the -- of the upheaval.

(Cross talk.)

QUESTIONER: So in Russia, interested to know to what extent social media has played a role thus far and whether it's something that might play a larger role. SESTANOVICH: Look, there's no doubt that this is a -- an important form of communication among people who are -- who want to associate themselves with this movement.

Let me give you an example. The protest -- demonstration that took place on Saturday was one for which people registered on Facebook. They said, I'm going to be there; and so the numbers were up at the 30,000 level. And the demonstration that they're planning for December 24th, for which they've already gotten a permit, is based on -- I mean, the city has allowed for a demonstration of 50,000 people.

The opposition wants to drive that number up, and one of the leaders of the -- of the rally has said his goal is to get 300,000 people there. And they're -- and he announced this on his Facebook page. So there's no question that this is how people are communicating.

And, you know, when you've read all these stories about, you know, tweeting and -- from the demonstrations, there are -- and I talked about Alexei Navalny, who made himself a -- an online celebrity. I mean, that's how he became a political figure.

So I would say it's pretty significant. And I don't even -- and I don't want to leave out Dmitry Medvedev here, who has encouraged this, who has treated it as an element of modern life; you know, Medvedev, the guy who was the only person at the G-8 with an iPad. (Laughs.)

So I would say it's -- it may be in some ways as much an element of how the organization takes place as it was in Egypt. Whether it's crucial in terms of generating opposition sentiment, I'm not so sure of that.

And I think that would -- that's probably something I just shouldn't offer a view on, although I think it probably has some significance that way too, making people aware of outrages; you know, pictures that get passed around of beatings, the ability of Navalny to communicate even as he's being dragged off to jail. That's important.

So I think we shouldn't -- we shouldn't think of this as -- as less affected by social media than some of the case of the Arab Spring.

SCHMEMANN: OK, we're reaching the end of our time, so I'll ask for short questions and short responses.

Operator, we'll take another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next question is from Carol Williams from L.A. Times.

QUESTIONER: Hi. What role do you see the military and security forces playing if social unrest escalates towards the elections?

SESTANOVICH: Well, they have been out in force. And the numbers over the weekend, I think, put the number of Russian police on the street at pretty much the same number as the demonstrators. And it has been possible for the -- for the regime to count on the police coming in to control demonstrations.

You know, in Soviet times you would have said there's no question about the loyalty of the army and the KGB and the cops on the street, but then when you ended up with a dramatic confrontation, a lot of -- it turned out a lot of the ordinary soldiers and even elite units didn't want to enforce the dictates of the old guard.

So -- and that will be an issue again. And one should not assume that you can get people -- you can get the cops to shoot demonstrators. And Putin's whole formula has been based on trying to, you know, limit bloodshed. That's a very, very dramatic and dangerous development in Russia when you've got -- when you've got people being shot.

So the effort will be to use the power ministries to maintain order, but once things begin to unravel a little bit, Russian governments generally suspect that they can't count on -- on these institutions to save them. And I've heard from Russian friends -- butI can't confirm this -- that already some of the police that they brought in to handle these demonstrations in the big cities have been from the provinces, suggesting that there's a little more confidence that they can get country boys to beat up urban demonstrators. You know, that's the Tiananmen model.

I don't know whether that's true, but even there, any Russian government is generally confident that they can have the cops on their side until things get a little too tense, and then they worry about -- about being abandoned.

SCHMEMANN: All right, I think we can squeeze in one last question, Operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last question is from Margaret Warner from PBS NewsHour.

QUESTIONER: Just real quickly, and you probably covered this: Is Medvedev just totally discredited? Does he have any role to play in the future?

SESTANOVICH: He has become a bit of a laughingstock. You know, it's -- it's hard to write anybody off in Russian politics when you've got -- when you've got guys who are being -- who are on the list that we've been mentioning for presidential contenders, who've been around for 20 years and been in and out of -- you know, of any serious political activity.

He's not built a particularly serious base for himself, but, you know, I hate to -- I hesitate to say he's totally finished.

Right now, it looks as though he's marginalized himself and been overtaken by people who are more serious about changing the system than he was ever prepared to be.

SCHMEMANN: Well, thank you all for a very interesting discussion.

Thank you, Steve.

A transcript of this call will be posted on There's also an interview with Steve Sestanovich posted on our homepage,

And this is the end of our on-the-record media call on Russia with Steve Sestanovich. Thank you all.






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