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Russia’s Putin Faces Unprecedented Challenge as Tens of Thousands Protest Electoral Fraud

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Tens of thousands of Russians filled the streets in Moscow and other cities over the weekend in the largest demonstrations Russia has seen in more than a decade. Protesters expressed outrage at the large-scale electoral fraud they said took place during recent parliamentary elections and are demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his ruling “United Russia” party. “I think what people in Russia want are the kind of things that people in the U.S. and Western Europe take for granted,” says our guest Luke Harding, award-winning foreign correspondent with The Guardian of London. “They just want fair elections. They want a real, plural media that listens to opposition voices, that has sort of critical people, who are currently banned, I have to say, from state television. They want a more plural political landscape.” Harding was expelled from Moscow earlier this year after he used classified diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks to report on allegations that Russia, under the rule of Putin, had become a “virtual mafia state.” Harding has written a new book about his experience, “Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Russia, a high-ranking editor and executive at one of the country’s most respected news magazines were dismissed Tuesday after their latest issue alleged electoral fraud and included a photograph of a ballot scrawled with obscene words aimed at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The dismissals come just after tens of thousands of Russians protested in Moscow and other cities across the country over the weekend in the largest demonstrations Russia has seen in over a decade. Protesters have expressed outrage at the large-scale electoral fraud they said took place during recent parliamentary elections. They’re demanding the ouster of Putin and his ruling United Russia party. Political analyst Konstantin von Eggert said the protests mark a turning point in Russian politics.

KONSTANTIN VON EGGERT: [translated] The meeting in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow is a historic event because it’s pretty much changing the political paradigm for the last 10 years in Russia and raises the question of the necessity of adapting to a new environment, to these new expectations for the opposition and the power.

AMY GOODMAN: In response to the protests, the Russian government has vowed to investigate the fraud allegations. This is Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

PRESIDENT DMITRY MEDVEDEV: [translated] Where there are real violations, they will be resolved fairly. Actually, these official complaints on election day total 118 cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Russian Prime Minister Putin earlier blamed the U.S. for instigating the protests. He said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement saying the ballot was rigged even before she had received reports from election monitors.

PRIME MINISTER VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] Straight away, the Secretary of State assessed the elections as dishonest and unfair, even though she hadn’t even received the observers’ material. She set the tone for some of our personalities inside the country and gave them a signal. And they heard this signal and, with the support from the State Department, started active work.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Alexei Navalny, a blogger best known for describing Putin’s ruling party as “the party of crooks and thieves,” is serving 15 days in jail for his part in calling for protests. He says he wants to be president, and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov announced earlier this week he will run for president against Putin in the March presidential elections. Prokhorov owns the New Jersey Nets.

To talk more about events in Russia, we go to London to Luke Harding, the award-winning foreign correspondent with The Guardian. He’s their former Moscow correspondent. He was expelled from Moscow earlier this year after he used WikiLeaks cables to report on allegations that Russia, under the rule of Vladimir Putin, had become a “virtual mafia state.” His new book is called Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia. He’s joining us from the _Guardian_’s newsroom via Democracy Now! video stream.

Luke, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what’s happening in Russia.

LUKE HARDING: Well, I think it’s a fascinating moment, Amy. As you say, it’s the biggest protest we’ve had in Russia since 1993, as many as 50,000 people taking to the streets, demonstrating. When I was a correspondent in Moscow, I covered these protests. And very often you’d see a couple of hundred people there, a few old ladies, a few students, and that was it. And clearly, something’s happening. I think the public is just outraged by what’s happened. They’ve seen videos on YouTube. They’ve experienced it themselves, and they’ve been surveyed. I mean, there was fraud on a massive scale—not 118 violations as Dmitry Medvedev said in your clip, but many, many thousands. And they’re just kind of fed up, really, I think, of being treated like idiots, because if you watch Russian state television, it doesn’t really reflect everyday reality in Russia, and it just has one hero, that hero of course being Vladimir Putin, who, as we know, is basically going to be returning to the Kremlin. He’s still certain, I think, to win presidential elections in March. And he’s going to be back in power and on the international stage for another six years, and potentially another 12 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Luke, what exactly are the people in the streets demanding? And how do these protests compare to what’s happened across Europe and even here in the United States?

LUKE HARDING: Well, I think they’re more fundamental. I think what people in Russia want are the kind of things that people in the U.S. and Western Europe take for granted. They just want fair elections. They want a kind of real, plural media that listens to opposition voices, that has sort of critical people, who are currently banned, I have to say, from state television. They want a more plural political landscape, because at the moment, basically, Russia is formally a democracy, but in reality, it’s nothing of the kind. It has a kind of pretend parliament. It has pretend opposition rather than real opposition. And it has none of the safeguards that we take for granted. The court system is corrupted and susceptible to political influence. And people are just not protected when they go about their everyday life. They’re at the mercy of predatory bureaucrats, policemen, people who’ve got a stake in the Putin regime. And I think ordinary Russians are increasingly fed up with this.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s happening with the media, the firing of reporters yesterday, editors yesterday, and how the media operates.

LUKE HARDING: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s part of the kind of Kremlin bounceback. The Kremlin’s been rather wrongfooted by these protests. I mean, Putin was clever enough to allow them, rather than doing the standard tactic, which just is to beat people over the head with a truncheon and arrest them and put them in police wagons. But now, of course, they’re kind of regrouping. They’re thinking, how do they respond? I mean, this has been quite a resilient and quite an adaptive regime.

And here, of course, they’ve fired these two editors from Kommersant, who, incidentally, they were the one publication in Russia which actually published an extract from my book a couple of months ago. But the crime, of course, is mocking the czar. They did a photo of a ballot paper with “Putin,” expletive, and then another word. And this was clearly crossing a line. And so, so I think we can see—we can see—I mean, Putin’s dilemma, if you like, is, how do you respond to this? You can liberalize and accommodate the protesters. Or you can get on the same kind of lugubrious KGB track that we’ve seen over the past 12 years, the sort of authoritarian path. And of course, no prizes for guessing which path Putin, the former KGB agent, I think, prefers.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexei Navalny, the Russian blogger who’s sitting in jail right now, explain his significance.

LUKE HARDING: Well, I think Navalny is—he’s an interesting guy. He’s tall, unlike most members of the Russian government, who are either small or very small. Dmitry Medvedev is, I think, the smallest leader I’ve ever met in my foreign correspondent career. But he’s an anti-corruption campaigner. He has an enormously popular blog. And I think what’s happened with Navalny is that he’s had this big following among young Russians on the internet. There are now 51 million Russians who are online, which just sort of shows you how it’s growing. But I think he’s—he’s kind of—he’s moved to being a kind of offline figure, as well. And he was the one who coined the phrase “the party of thieves and crooks” to describe United Russia. And I think the Kremlin are very, very worried about him, because he’s also a nationalist. He’s not a liberal. He’s a sort of soft nationalist. And I think if he were allowed to run and take part in the presidential election in March in a fair contest, I think he would push Vladimir Putin very close indeed. But my suspicion is that he won’t be allowed anywhere near the ballot paper, and some kind of mechanism will be found to push him off.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you describe him as even having fascist tendencies, also, in relation to immigrants?

LUKE HARDING: Well, yes. I mean, some of his statements, I think, are pretty—I wouldn’t say alarming, but I think concerning. I mean, I have met him. He’s a lawyer. He speaks reasonable English. He understands the modern world, obviously. And, I mean, I’d like to sort of see more of him, really. I mean, what would be great would be if Putin and Navalny could debate, if there could be a sort of platform where they could, you know, sort of thrash out the future of Russia. But I just don’t see this happening. I think the Kremlin will try and sort of push him down back into his box.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he has said he might want to be president, and then there’s also the Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the Nets here in the United States.

LUKE HARDING: Yeah, I mean, I think, I have to say, Prokhorov, I’m afraid, is—as far as I can tell, is a fake. He’s not a Kremlin project. There’s a sort of dark genius behind the Kremlin’s political system, and that’s a man called Vladislav Surkov, who’s the ultimate sort of behind-the-scenes plotter who—it was Surkov who came up with Nashi, this pro-Putin, pro-Kremlin youth organization who go around hounding American and British diplomats and other people, like myself, regarded as enemies of the state. And I think that Prokhorov, I’m afraid, is a bit of a Surkov creation to siphon off discontented middle-class voters and to create the illusion of political competition where there is none.

AMY GOODMAN: Luke, talk a little about your book and your experiences in Russia as _Guardian_’s foreign correspondent there. Your book, Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia. How long were you there?

LUKE HARDING: Well, I lasted four years. I arrived in Moscow with my wife Phoebe and our two small children in January of 2007. Pretty quickly, within about four months, the Russian security services, the FSB, which is the successor agency to the KGB, Vladimir Putin’s old outfit, broke into our flat, did all sorts of creepy psychological things, opened windows, set alarms, implied my children might meet with an accident. I was summoned to the KGB prison in Moscow, Lefortovo. And I even had unpromising young men wearing leather jackets who would sit next to me in restaurants and dump bags on the table, I suspect concealing listening devices. And it was part of a kind of a toolbox of psychological techniques of harassment and intimidation, which is used primarily against Russians, against human rights activists, against opposition people, but also increasingly against diplomats and against foreign journalists. My colleague, my Guardian colleague, flew back into Moscow last night, and he was stopped at the airport, told he was on a blacklist, that he wouldn’t be admitted. He was held for 50 minutes, and then he was told that his name was similar to someone else’s on the blacklist, and he was let in. And it’s just depressing that these KGB tactics that Putin used as a young agent, that he learned about, have been—are being wheeled out now in what I think is essentially a kind of rebooted, updated version of the Soviet Union, but without the ideology, without socialism, and just with a kind of rapacious elite who want to hang on to their billions and stay in power at all costs.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the internet and Vladimir Putin?

LUKE HARDING: Well, he doesn’t understand it. I mean, he doesn’t use it. He hasn’t got a Facebook page, as far as I know. He’s never tweeted. He doesn’t really do social media. Instead, he relies on other people to tell him what’s going on. And people who know him quite well describe him as informationally isolated. And I think that’s true. And I think, basically, when he took over in 2000, he realized, rather smartly, that the thing to do was to control public space and, above all, to control television. So, there’s absolutely censorship on state TV.

But, of course, what he hadn’t factored in, in his sort of postmodern, neo-Soviet sort of Russia, is the growth of the internet and the fact that many young Russians just don’t watch state TV anymore. They regard it as for zombies, and instead they get their news from Ekho Moskvy, the radio station, from Novaya Gazeta, from online portals and LiveJournal, Facebook and so on. And this has been instrumental, I think, in galvanizing people and bringing them onto the streets, and them just realizing that they’re being treated like fools, like peasants, by this rather cynical elite that really, really have a kind of feudal relation—feudal relationship, the people that are supposedly governing.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Luke, if you could describe how you were expelled from Russia.

LUKE HARDING: Yeah, I flew back in February of this year. I had a valid visa. The Russian Foreign Ministry in November had said it didn’t like me, and I wasn’t going to get any more accreditation, and I should clear off with my family. But the British government intervened, and this decision was stayed for six months. But when I flew back in February, I got as far as passport control of Moscow airport, and then a young official, Nikolai, took me to one side, and he said, “For you, Russia is closed.” And I said, “Well, why, Nikolai? Why?” And he said, “I don’t know. Did you do something wrong?” And I said, “No, not as far as I know.” And then I was escorted to a deportation cell, where I found a group of friendly guys from Central Asia playing cards, who looked at me as if I had just descended from Venus, because here I was, a prosperous European, awaiting, like them, deportation. And so, that was pretty much the end of my Moscow career. I was expelled. I never really found out why. The Russian Foreign Ministry came up with some kind of silly reasons. But essentially, it was an FSB decision. They didn’t like me, and they wanted to show who’s boss. And for the moment, it’s them.

AMY GOODMAN: Luke Harding, I want to thank you for being with us, from the offices of The Guardian newspaper in London, where he reports now. His book is called Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia. Again, interesting fact that Russia has taken over Germany in the number of internet users, the largest in Europe with 51 million people online.

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