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Russian Election Protests Biggest In 2 Decades


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. We begin this morning with the events that unfolded in Russia over the weekend. Tens of thousands protested in Moscow and dozens of other cities. They alleged widespread fraud in last week's parliamentary elections and had angry words for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose party dominates the parliament. The demonstrations may have been the largest the country has seen since the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago. The question now is how the government will respond and whether this outpouring of emotion will lead to real any change.

NPR's Moscow correspondent David Greene is wrapping up a two-week reporting trip across Russia. We found him in the city of Khabarovsk. Hi there, David.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. So Prime Minister Putin was the target of these protests. What's he doing about it?

GREENE: Well, so far we've heard from Putin's office, Steve. And they say simply that the prime minister was listening and heard what the protesters were saying. The president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, says he didn't agree with the slogans that were out on the streets but he is planning an investigation into whether there was election fraud in those parliamentary elections a week ago, which Putin's party did win. And the demonstrators have insisted that there was widespread fraud. And let's just remember the context of all of this weekend, Steve: Putin served as president for eight years, prime minister now for close to four, and now he plans to return as president next year, in theory for possibly two more six-year terms.

And it looks like this is what really angered a lot of Russians who where out on the streets. Putin announced that he would run in a presidential election coming up in March - not Medvedev, the current president - and a lot of Russians seem to feel he was just assuming that job is his, forgetting that voters actually have a voice and have a choice.

INSKEEP: People listening in the U.S. are immediately going to wonder, is this an Arab Spring for Russia?

GREENE: You know, it's not clear yet. This was one event. And Steve, I'm actually looking more to what's happening outside of Moscow. I am really far away from the capital. I'm in the city of Khabarovsk, as you said. It's seven time zones to the East. People are driving cars with the steering wheel on the right because the cars come from Japan, which is nearby. And when those thousands of people were out on the streets of Moscow Saturday, there was a flash mob Mr. Obama here in Lenin Square. About a hundred students put scotch tape over their mouths, in essence saying we have no voice in politics.

But speaking to people out in the streets today in this city, the voice that really stuck with me, Steve, was a woman named Natalia Alexandrovna. She didn't give me her full name out of fear for her job. She's a 42-year-old mom. She works as a nurse for the police department here. And I spoke to her. She was all bundled up in the square, and she's basically tolerated Putin for the past 12 years. Didn't love, didn't hate him. I asked her if she thought maybe Putin might respond in some way to these protests, and she said probably not.

NATALIA ALEXANDROVNA: (Through translator) Since he already was president, and we didn't have anything good from him, so I think it is unlikely.

GREENE: Next time people come out here on the square to protest, do you think you might consider coming out here to say I want a change?

ALEXANDROVNA: (Through translator) Well, it is likely, if I have time.

GREENE: Have you ever done that before? Have you ever come out to protest?

ALEXANDROVNA: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Nyet, Steve. She said nyet. She's never been out to protest before.

INSKEEP: Well, is she going to get a chance to protest in the future?

GREENE: We'll find out. I mean certainly in Moscow the opposition leaders are vowing to come out on the streets again. Here in Khabarovsk, it's hard to say. I mean those hundred people that we saw this weekend were one of the largest protests people remember in this city since Soviet times. But, you know, a lot of Russians have this reputation for being apolitical, especially outside of the capital. And that's why this woman was so powerful to me, Steve. I mean you hear complaints about Putin in Moscow, but in my two years of covering Russia, when I've gone out into the regions like this, normally you hear people saying, you know, Putin, I want a strong leader, I want stability. And I've always just said to myself, you know, when, if, you know, are Russians going to demand political change? And if change is coming right now, if that's what we're seeing, I think the voice from this woman who I spoke to might be as important or more important than those live voices in Moscow.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Greene talking with us from the eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk. David, thanks very much.

GREENE: Always a pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: And of course David joins this program as a host and correspondent early next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.