Prague, 21 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- This week marks a milestone in President Putin’s second term, and his opponents were out on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg yesterday to make sure he didn’t forget it.
Ilya Yashin, leader of the youth branch of the opposition Yabloko party, led a public demonstration in the Russian capital.
"In precisely 1,000 days, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will have to step down from office," Yashin said. "In 1,000 days he will have to leave, and in 1,000 days a new, democratically elected president will appear in Russia -- we all believe this. In three years, an entire era in Russian politics will come to an end: an era of political censorship, an era of never-ending war in Chechnya, an era of property redistribution and of criminal cases against businessmen. The era of Vladimir Putin will end. Today, it is entering its final stage. Let's say a cheer to this: Hurray!"
Three years is a long time in politics, especially in Russia, so Yashin’s rhetoric could be taken with a grain of salt. But the Moscow demonstration reflects the fact that Russia’s political class has already begun to look ahead to a post-Putin future.
In St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, there was another, even more pointed rally. Some 40 protesters set up a countdown calendar on the street where the Russian president spent his youth. They also unveiled a mock plaque criticizing Putin’s past and his administration’s record.
"At the end of these 1,000 days, we don't want a successor to Putin. We don't want his clone, but a genuine, normal president."
An RFE/RL correspondent on the scene reported that the plaque read: “On this street, a hooligan, a bully, a Chekist [member of the Soviet secret police -- predecessor to the KGB] and future president grew up. As a consequence of his rule, we are left with Chechnya, the Kursk [submarine disaster], the Nord-Ost [theater hostage massacre], the Beslan [school massacre], censorship, and the power vertical.”
The countdown calendar and plaque were soon taken down by police.
The demonstrations in both cities were relatively small. But they should not be discounted, according to Moscow-based political scientist Vladimir Pribilovskii. He believes they signal the ascendancy of youth movements in Russia.
Earlier this year, following a model established in countries like Serbia and Montenegro, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, politically oriented Russian youth groups united in a broad coalition called Oborona, the Russian word for "defense."
Oborona’s stated goals are not to support a particular party or future presidential candidate but to defend civil rights and freedoms and ensure fair elections.
Pribilovskii said he believes groups like Oborona are not yet influential, but he says the government’s recent moves to centralize power and marginalize opposition groups show that the Kremlin feels threatened.
"Today they are not a serious force. But they can become one tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow they will be one for certain," Pribilovskii said. "The government fears everything, young people in particular. They feel they're on shaky ground and behave accordingly. They're grabbing everything in sight, as if they only had two days left to live. Every government views the opposition with suspicion and when the opposition is youthful [those suspicions are even stronger]. Young people are more uncompromising. It's hard to control them, or practically impossible to control them."
That has not stopped the authorities from trying. In recent days, special forces stormed the Moscow headquarters of the unregistered National Bolshevik Party (NBP). Although it is led by 62-year-old radical writer Eduard Limonov, most National Bolsheviks are young. They are among the most active anti-government demonstrators, regularly attempting to disrupt public events by pelting officials with tomatoes or unfurling abusive banners. (For a profile of the National Bolshevik Party and its outspoken leader, click here
Government officials now talk of banning the National Bolsheviks. More than 40 of its members are currently in custody, some awaiting trial.
The authorities have tried to use the carrot, as well as the stick, by sponsoring pro-government youth movements such as Walking Together and Nashi ("Ours"). But Pribilovskii said these well choreographed fronts lack the internal passion that drives youth opposition groups.
"From right to left, starting with the youth wing of the Union of Rightist Forces and ending with the Stalinist Red Youth avant-garde movement, these are living movements, that exist independently and arose spontaneously," Pribilovskii said. "Walking Together and Nashi are bureaucratic structures which are meant to buy off young people."
Irina Vorobeva, who took part in the Moscow demonstration, is one young person who says she won’t be “bought off.” She described the festive atmosphere at the rally.
"At the end of these 1,000 days, we don't want a successor to Putin. We don't want his clone, but a genuine, normal president," Vorobeva said. "We dressed up three people in Putin masks. The first one came out in these nice, sporty skis, in a samba costume. The second is a soldier and the third is a Chekist -- a gray rat with epaulets wearing a St. Petersburg hat. We want them all to return home to St. Petersburg on those skis."
For now, this remains a minority view in Russia. According to the latest poll taken in May, Putin’s approval rating remains at an impressive 69 percent.