Vladimir Putin’s victory in Russia’s March 4 presidential election is all but assured. The opposition has narrowed to several Kremlin-picked “shadow boxers,” and authorities have cracked down on independent media. But voters have had enough. In recent weeks, throngs of protesters have converged on Russian cities, radically changing the political context and forcing rare concessions from Mr. Putin. We explore how Russia’s social upheaval will impact the elections.


  • Brian Whitmore Senior Correspondent and author of the "Power Vertical" blog, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
  • Ambassador James Collins Director, Russian and Eurasian Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Former Ambassador to the Russian Federation, 1997 to 2001


  • 13:06:50

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, when you lose your Smartphone or it gets stolen, what next? But first, for Russia's Vladimir Putin, there's no such thing as a sure thing anymore. Moscow has been rocked by massive protests against alleged election fraud after December's parliamentary elections. Allies outside Moscow have openly rebelled against Mr. Putin and the Internet is quickly slipping out from under the Kremlin's control.

  • 13:07:37

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISo as Russia's March 4th presidential vote approaches, Mr. Putin, currently the prime minister, finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If the once and future president doesn't win a majority in the presidential vote on March 4th, he could face a runoff and risk embarrassment or his party could attempt to boost votes at the ballot box, risking fury from the Russian electorate.

  • 13:08:02

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss how all of this may likely go is Brian Whitmore. He's senior correspondent and author of the Power Vertical blog at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He joins us from the studios of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. Brian Whitmore, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:21

    MR. BRIAN WHITMOREThank you for having me.

  • 13:08:22

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at Carnegie in Washington, D.C., James Collins is director of the Russia and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1997 to 2001. Jim Collins, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:40

    MR. JAMES COLLINSGood to be with you, Kojo.

  • 13:08:41

    NNAMDIJim, the last time you joined us to talk about Russia, Mr. Putin had just announced his intention to return to the presidency and install current president, Dmitry Medvedev, as prime minister. Then in December, tens of thousands of protesters converged in the capital in what's being called the Moscow Spring. Why are Russians so mad going into these elections on March 4th?

  • 13:09:07

    COLLINSWell, I think there are a number of reasons. But the first one that precipitated the demonstrations was, in a sense, a feeling it seems by a very large number of Russian citizens that simply being told that their president was going to be Vladimir Putin and that Mr. Medvedev would switch jobs with him was frankly an insult to the political process and the idea that they had a voice in making the decision.

  • 13:09:35

    COLLINSAnd they have been basically demanding change in the wake of that announcement, but also in the wake of what were clearly major irregularities and some fraud in the elections to the parliament that took place in early December.

  • 13:09:52

    NNAMDIWhat kinds of demands do the protestors have? Do they want to redo parliamentary elections or is there more to it, Jim?

  • 13:10:01

    COLLINSWell, there are, I must say, a variety of demands. But one of them certainly is to call for new elections to the parliament within some reasonable period of time. They want more representation in voting for governors. They are asking basic for constitutional changes. It's a very sweeping agenda. At the same time, it's not at all clear that there is a coherence to it. It -- one of the problems for the demonstrations is that they're pretty well united in wanting to have major change and to change their opposition to Mr. Putin's program. On the other hand, they don't have a very coherent program to put in its place.

  • 13:10:52

    NNAMDIBrian Whitmore, Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, held an unprecedented meeting yesterday with opposition leaders to discuss how the Kremlin might accommodate anti-Kremlin parties in these elections. Were any concessions made to the protesters?

  • 13:11:09

    WHITMORENo concrete concessions were made yet. But I think the meeting that President Medvedev had with the opposition points to an important thing we need to bear in mind about this election. Notice what happens after the election is much more important, I think, at this point than what happens in the election. It's becoming increasingly clear that Putin is going to win in the first round. A combination of things lead me to this conclusion, one, a series of public opinion polls that show him doing so.

  • 13:11:36

    NNAMDIAs well as 58 percent in the first round.

  • 13:11:39

    WHITMOREYeah, it looks like 58 percent in the latest polls. And some of these came out from state polling agencies, which are more trying to build the narrative than actually show us what the public thinks. But just as importantly, we've gotten indications that the order has gone out to regional electoral commissions. And we learned this form some whistleblowers that Putin is to be secured of victory in the first round at all costs.

  • 13:12:01

    WHITMORESo, Putin's going to win in the first round. But after this, he's going to have to govern a country, a very different country than the one he has been accustomed to governing. You have a middle class that's clamoring for reform, you have an elite that's divided. And part of the elite, a significant portion of the elite sees the need for reform. You have an economy in dire need of modernization, away from its dependence on oil and gas.

  • 13:12:25

    WHITMOREAnd so, Vladimir Putin is going to have some very difficult choices to make after the election. He's going to be governing a very, very different country. Sometimes revolutions that lose are much more successful than revolutions that win. And bearing in mind the Russian history, the Revolution of 1905 resulted in a parliament, political rights for citizens and so on, the unsuccessful revolution of 1905. The successful revolution of 1917, on the other hand, gave us the Soviet Union. So, I think what -- the thing to watch is what's going to happen starting on March 5th and going forward from there.

  • 13:13:01

    NNAMDII'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850 or by sending us a tweet @kojoshow, email to kojo@wamu.org or by going to our website, kojoshow.org and asking a question or making a comment there. Is the era of managed democracy under Vladimir Putin over in Russia? 800-433-8850. Do you think the same social and political upheaval we saw in the Middle East might be taking shape in Russia?

  • 13:13:30

    NNAMDIAgain, the number 800-433-8850. Jim, when he was president for the first time from 2000 to 2008, Vladimir Putin presided over a stabilization of Russian life -- the economy soared, the standard of living rose, Mr. Putin had the support of the business community and the wealthy. What happened? What went wrong, if you will, and who actually supports him now?

  • 13:13:54

    COLLINSWell, I think, first of all, that one has to remember he came in as president at a time when, I would say, it was generally agreed that Russia was in dire straits and needed to find a way to promote and achieve recovery. And he was very successful at recovery. He, you know, had, as you said, extraordinary rates of economic growth. He put economic assets that were idle back to work. He re-established a degree of law and order and regularity. And he basically improved the standard of living of almost every Russian.

  • 13:14:31

    COLLINSNow the problem he has now is that coming to office a second time, he doesn't have those assets to work with. He cannot rely on putting unused assets to work. He cannot rely on 100 percent increase in the price of oil, as he did in the first time he governed. And he has a population which is now, in a sense, taken for granted that Russia is now stabilized, it's recovered. And they want to know, now what? What's next? And they are basically, I think, at least those who are protesting are saying that 10 more years of what we had in the last 10 just isn't good enough.

  • 13:15:10

    COLLINSWe need a new society. We need a modernized world. A very good friend and colleague who heads the Kennan Institute here, Blair Ruble, categorized the dilemma as Mr. Putin presiding over a post-modern society with a pre-modern government. And the question really in front of everybody -- and I agree with Brian -- is what's he going to do about that? Is he going to try to keep what he has or is he going to bring change that will somehow make the governing system more effective?

  • 13:15:40

    NNAMDIJames Collins is director of the Russia and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1997 to 2001. He joins us from studios at Carnegie in Washington. Joining from the studios of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague is Brian Whitmore. He's senior correspondent and author of Power Vertical blog at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

  • 13:16:05

    NNAMDIBrian, the protests apparently took the Kremlin by surprised. And at first, Mr. Putin seemed somewhat conciliatory. But in the past two weeks we have been seeing major crackdowns, particularly on local media. What's been happening to independent stations in Russia?

  • 13:16:22

    WHITMOREWell, this week there was information that the television station Dozhd TV, which means Rain TV in Russia which is a new startup and it's really an amazing thing. It's this online television station that's becoming one of the most reliable and interesting sources of news. I don't think there's a person over 30 in the building. Maybe a couple, but they're just barely over 30. But it's one of the most professional television stations out there.

  • 13:16:47

    WHITMOREThey covered the protests extensively, and I would say, quite objectively. But a (unintelligible) deputy who is a former spokesman of the pro-Putin youth movement said that he thought they were financed by the Americans and that they were not really covering the protest but promoting them. And the prosecutor has asked them for their financial documents. There's that. And earlier in the week, Ekho Moskvy, which is a more or less independent radio station which is owned, interestingly enough, the state-run gas monopoly Gazprom.

  • 13:17:23

    WHITMOREGazprom has replaced the board of directors at Ekho Moskvy. And this represents a little bit of a shift in Kremlin policy. Previously, they let Ekho Moskvy operate as an independent station because they understand the need for a safety valve, to have some independent outlet for dissent that they can keep an eye on and, by extension, control. This seems to be changing. But although no further moves have been made against Ekho Moskvy -- I've been listening to it throughout the week.

  • 13:17:50

    WHITMOREI haven't seen their editorial position change. Right before I went into the studio, they do this broadcast. I was watching Dozhd TV and it's functioning just as it was. So they're seeing slight ooze, but it's not clear there's going to be follow through. If you want to pick up...

  • 13:18:06

    NNAMDIWell, has -- please go ahead.

  • 13:18:08

    WHITMOREGo ahead.

  • 13:18:09

    NNAMDINo, you go ahead.

  • 13:18:09

    WHITMOREI wanted to pick up on something Ambassador Collins said that I completely agree with in terms of the development of this middle class. In many ways, Vladimir Putin has become a victim of his own success. One of his greatest achievements as a Russian president was the establishment of a middle class that came about due to the stability he created. This is the first time in Russian history that a middle class like this came into existence.

  • 13:18:34

    WHITMOREBut history shows us that when middle class is developed in authoritarian societies, they almost always want to assert their political rights sooner or later. We've seen this in South Korea, we've seen this in Taiwan, we've seen this in Chile and now we appear to be seeing this in Russia. And it's not going away.

  • 13:18:50

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Let's go to Luca (sp?) in Vienna, VA. Luca, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:19:01

    LUCAHi, Kojo. How are you?

  • 13:19:02

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 13:19:03

    LUCAAll right. Yeah, well, I want to say that I support Vladimir Putin. I grew up in Soviet Republic of Russia.

  • 13:19:13

    NNAMDIYou got a bad connection on you, Luca. Allow me to put you on hold see if we can improve the connection and then we will come back to you. Jim Collins, when we were talking with Brian Whitmore about the moves that Mr. Putin has apparently been making against independent media in Russia, what do those moves tell you about Mr. Putin's thinking going into the elections?

  • 13:19:36

    COLLINSWell, I would agree with Brian that they are sort of more signals than actual moves. I mean, the Internet remains free. As he noted, yes, there were changes in some personnel at the board of directors of Ekho Moskvy and so forth. I think it's not at all clear that I would say this represents a major crackdown or anything like it. What we don't know, though, is what does it signal about the future.

  • 13:20:03

    AMBASSADOR JAMES COLLINSWhat I think is important for people who are truly interested to take account of is to read the articles that Mr. Putin has been writing. He lays out a vision for a variety of different approaches to many of the problems from military reform to health to population growth and so forth. And he's trying to say in essence, you know, we're going to continue a stable but progressing improvement in your life, in your security. And he lays out some steps he's going to make.

  • 13:20:40

    AMBASSADOR JAMES COLLINSThe problem he has is that there's going to be great skepticism after this election. Yes, he is probably going to win in the first round and certainly he will win the election. There's no question. The problem he faces is that as with the Duma election a lot of people will question whether or not this was a fair election. This means he has facing him both the problem of establishing or reestablishing in a sense the real legitimacy of his governance. And with that making programs effective.

  • 13:21:13

    AMBASSADOR JAMES COLLINSNow he's making a lot of promises in these articles and statements. And there's a pretty strong view on the part of most of the analysts looking at them that it's almost impossible to deliver on all of it. That's going to be an increasing problem for him and he's going face demands that will require him, it seems to me, to be looking for new allies and something different from the constellation of people he had as his support in the last few years.

  • 13:21:42

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, Brian Whitmore, I'll ask you to weigh in on the same issue, the promises that Mr. Putin has been making. You too can call us at 800-433-8850 to join the conversation. What do you think of the power swap between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:23:48

    NNAMDIWe have Russia's presidential elections approaching on March 4. We're talking with James Collins, Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1997 to 2001. Brian Whitmore is Senior Correspondent and author of the Power Vertical blog at Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. We're taking your calls at 800-433--8850.

  • 13:24:13

    NNAMDIBrian, you heard Jim Collins talking a little bit about some of the promises Mr. Putin has been making. A lot of expensive campaign promises to the Russian people. What else is on his to-do list and how will they affect the Russian economy if these promises are in fact fulfilled?

  • 13:24:28

    WHITMOREWell, I agree with Ambassador Collins that his promises are going to be extremely difficult to fulfill because the Russian economy badly needs reform. And what has to happen after the election is that Putin or whoever becomes the president, it will almost certainly be Putin, must reform the pension system, muse reform the health care system because they are bloated and inefficient and they're not really in line with the modern economy.

  • 13:24:50

    WHITMOREBut what I will say is that Putin faces a very, very fundamental dilemma in terms of economic reform. And that is that the Russian economy, in order to function properly and fulfill the needs of its people, has to be diversified away from oil and gas. They say there's two pillars of the Russian economy, oil and gas and that's it. And in order to make the economy more modern it has to be diversified. A better manufacturing center has to be created.

  • 13:25:16

    WHITMOREBut, you know, if that happens, that will de facto, decentralize economic power. And once you begin to decentralize economic power you almost, by extension, lead to the decentralization of political power, which is something that is intolerable to Putin and to many insiders in his circle. So they really are, in this sense, as you said at the outset of the program, between a rock and a hard place because they must reform economically.

  • 13:25:43

    WHITMOREBut if they do reform economically it will mean them losing control of the political process because you'll have independent centers of economic power not controlled by the Kremlin. Now there has been, Kojo, one very optimistic scenario that's been put out there. And this centers around the former finance minister Alexei Kudrin who is really the man more than anybody responsible for the macroeconomic stability that Russia enjoyed over the last decade.

  • 13:26:10

    WHITMOREMr. Kudrin resigned in protest after the job switch between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin was announced in late September. And Putin badly, badly wants him back. The two of them go way back. They served together in the St. Petersburg government of the reformist mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the early 1990s. They're very close friends. Even though Kudrin does not come from this KGB background, Putin deeply respects him.

  • 13:26:34

    WHITMOREKudrin's price for coming back into the government is that he wants to be prime minister, not Dmitry Medvedev. And that he wants Putin to do real economic reform and real political reform. And Kurin, if this scenario happens -- and this is a very optimistic scenario -- he's somebody that just has the political weight and the closeness to Putin that he just might be able to pull it off.

  • 13:26:56

    NNAMDIOh, optimistic for him, but not for Mr. Medvedev.

  • 13:27:01

    WHITMORENo, not optimistic for Mr. Medvedev. But I also think that Mr. Medvedev's tenure as prime minister, if it should happen -- and I think that is a very, very, very big if -- will be very short indeed. Because my understanding from following this in the Russian media and reading the tealeaves is that Medvedev's mission in becoming prime minister was to be to carry out very unpopular social reforms. As I was talking about before the reform of the pension system, the reform of the health care system to make these more efficient.

  • 13:27:29

    WHITMOREAnd then he was going to take the heat for this. This was supposed to be his role in this drama. Medvedev's played a lot of roles in this drama. He played the role of holding the Kremlin and keeping it warm for Putin for four years so Putin can now return without violating the constitution, which prohibits three consecutive terms and not three terms. And his other role was supposed to be to carry -- to be the kamikaze pilot that would carry out these very difficult social reforms and then move aside for somebody else, possibly Kudrin.

  • 13:27:55

    WHITMOREBut now there's beginning to be momentum. And even supporters of Dmitry Medvedev are saying that Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister would be a much better candidate for the prime minister spot for a number of reasons. Kudrin carries, as I said, a lot of weight and he would be able to carry out reforms that Medvedev might not be able to carry out.

  • 13:28:17

    WHITMOREAnd so I think that scenario is -- and he is -- and Alexei Kudrin is also -- he has the loyalty of a technocratic wing of the Russian elite, which was the part of the elite that was hoping that Medvedev would stay in the presidency, was disappointed when he did not. And now they are shifting their allegiance to Alexei Kudrin. So this is a scenario I'm watching for. If I see this happen I'll begin to think that the optimistic scenario may be coming to fruition.

  • 13:28:44

    NNAMDIAmbassador Collins, what is your own prognosis of Mr. Medvedev's likely future and his newly minted role as prime minister or his role as newly minted prime minister?

  • 13:28:55

    COLLINSWell, I am going to wait to see exactly who takes what positions when the elections are over. I don't find this guessing game to be very productive. What it does seem to me though is you can sketch out sort of maybe three options that Mr. Putin has as he goes forward. He can first try to deliver on his promises by keeping the old system in place and having a highly centralized effort to direct the way economic development and change will take place. I personally have my great doubts that's possible, but it's one option.

  • 13:29:35

    COLLINSThe second will be that he goes in the direction such as Brian has suggested. What I would say is a major reformist direction where he is going to have to try to bring into his circle a much broader base of actors from the economy, from -- even from the NGO community. And the third is kind of a middle muddle through scenario in which he will do minimal reforms, try to keep things going but with heavy inflow of money from the oil and gas sector and so forth. He keeps the government functioning and he can keep paying pensions and so forth.

  • 13:30:14

    COLLINSI just think we don't know how he's going to respond to this. I think how the election turns out will play some role. If he gets an overwhelming majority vote, which seems not very probable at the moment, he would be under much less pressure to push change. If he barely squeaks through and so forth he's going to be looking for new allies and he's going to need them.

  • 13:30:38

    COLLINSAnd one of the indications that there is a certain fluidity in all this is that, you know, the decision to make all the governors of the provinces around the country, some 85 to 90 people, elective in the future reflects the idea that maybe the old idea of a centralized appointment system where the center controlled all of the provinces isn't working very well. We're going to see change. The question is sort of in what direction it's going to go.

  • 13:31:09

    COLLINSAnd Mr. Putin has been arguing for change that is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. And I think if nothing else that certainly will be the watchword.

  • 13:31:19

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Nick in Fairfax, Va. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:31:25

    NICKHello, Kojo. And thank you very much for taking my call.

  • 13:31:27

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 13:31:28

    NICKI've appreciated this series on the tour before that and then the current grassroots revolution that's taking place in Russia. And I was wondering -- two parts of my question was, first off, why has this revolution not been as widely publicized as, say the Arab Spring or even our own occupation movement in America. And I understand that it's not really America's problem, that may be why. I could've just answered my own question.

  • 13:32:00

    NICKMy second question is -- yeah, and perhaps maybe this was just a couple of images I saw on the internet while searching for the story myself, but why has there been a resurgence in the old imperial Russian flag in these events, the black and gold and white?

  • 13:32:16

    NNAMDICare to answer that, Brian Whitmore? What do you know?

  • 13:32:19

    WHITMOREIn terms of the imperial flag, that -- if it's the flag I'm thinking of, that flag is used by the Russian Nationalists. And the thing about these protests is that it is a very, very diverse group. You have everything ranging from liberals to socialists to hardcore free economic -- free marketers to hardcore nationalists to soft nationalists. It's a very, very, very broad coalition. The only thing that unites them is they want to see Putin go.

  • 13:32:50

    WHITMORESo that's what would explain why you -- I think why -- if it's the flag I'm thinking of, why you've seen that flag at the protests. And this has been a source of a little bit of tension in the opposition movement between the liberal wing of it broadly defined and the nationalist wing of it broadly defined. And the socialist slash communist wing of it broadly defined is that it's often these people cannot agree on any single program except that Putin has to go.

  • 13:33:20

    WHITMOREIn terms of -- I would, I guess, not agree that it's not been publicized, though. And we certainly have been covering it extensively. I've seen many articles in the New York Times and in major media outlets about it.

  • 13:33:32

    NNAMDIIt has been fairly widely publicized.

  • 13:33:33

    WHITMOREIt's been covered -- yeah, I think it's been fairly widely covered. It's like Russia kind of burst itself back into the news. There was a time in the '90s when it was always in the news and it kind of slipped off the front pages. But I think starting on December 4, it really moved back onto the front pages for a while. And I think it's going to remain there for some time now.

  • 13:33:52

    NNAMDINick, thank you very much for your call. Jim Collins, one of the groups that Brian did not mention in the street protests has been the apparently restless student population. Any idea about how Mr. Putin is planning to placate the students' population that has partly been fueling these street protests?

  • 13:34:11

    COLLINSMy sense is it's not, Kojo, so much students as younger people. This is the social network generation. It's the group of people who are at home with all of the new electronic media that I have to ask my kids about. But for whom, you know, this world is a different place from their parents. After all, remember people graduating from university today don't even remember the Soviet Union. And most of the people who are even ten years older don't remember it.

  • 13:34:42

    COLLINSSo for them this is all ancient history. They want to know about what their country's going to become now. What are their job prospects? How do they make their way? And what's very interesting about a lot of these people to me is that, first of all, they are very much at home seeing themselves as citizens of the broader euro Atlantic world. They move easily about. Secondly, they see themselves quite capable of taking a job in Russia this year, then maybe going to England for a year, couple of years, going back.

  • 13:35:20

    COLLINSIn other words, this is a very different generation from the people who were their parents or even their elder brothers. And I think what we're watching here is the gradual movement of a new generation coming to the fore, having a way to articulate its own aspirations and views of the world through media and through different ways of expressing themselves and communicating, to build communities that simply did not exist and do not exist in the minds or physically earlier among people who are of an older generation.

  • 13:35:58

    COLLINSAnd this is a true challenge for Mr. Putin's governmental model. It's not just there. I mean, I think we're seeing this much more broadly, including in this country. But it's going to be a truly significant challenge for the way he has to govern in the coming years in order to enlist the support of this generation.

  • 13:36:19

    NNAMDIHere is Benny in Washington, D.C. Benny, your turn.

  • 13:36:23

    BENNYThank you for taking my call. I actually work for lawyers in (unintelligible) and my observation is that regardless of what we think about Mr. Putin, the problem is that there is no alternative right now. All the leaders of the opposition, all the (unintelligible) running to be president, et cetera they're just not going to make it. And imagine like what would be the situation if we had to elect from only one candidate in this country. You know, you don't have a choice.

  • 13:36:52

    BENNYSo the biggest problem is how the people who are not happy with what Mr. Putin is doing as reform are going to get united and do something about it.

  • 13:37:03

    NNAMDIWell, I'll try not to be completely dismissive of the opposition, Benny. Brian Whitmore, could you tell us a little bit about Mr. Putin's opposition in the March 4 elections? Who are these people?

  • 13:37:14

    WHITMOREWell, yeah, I think Benny is onto something in the short term here. There is a lack of alternative. If you look at the other candidates you have Gennady Zyuganov who is the -- he's a fixture in Russian politics, the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which is the Successor Party of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Unlike in other eastern European countries, the Communist Party in Russia did not reform and remains kind of truly a Successor Party of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

  • 13:37:40

    WHITMOREHe offers nothing other than nostalgia for the Soviet Union, rather than transforming this party into a social democratic party. He also is very charismatically challenged, to say the least. Another perennial candidate for president is Vladimir Zhirinovsky who heads the grossly misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, which is actually an ultra nationalist party with ties to the Kremlin, which always does the Kremlin's bidding but uses rhetoric to stir up national sentiment to get elected. So he is of course no alternative.

  • 13:38:13

    WHITMOREThe other two candidates are tainted by their past ties to the Kremlin. One of them is Sergey Mironov, the former speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament. And his ties to Vladimir Putin go way, way back. His party, a center left party A Just Russia was formed in 2006 for the express purpose of being a pocket Kremlin opposition party in siphoning some votes away from the communists.

  • 13:38:40

    WHITMORENow he has since become more of an opposition figure and has broken with the regime a bit, but he's having a hard time convincing anybody of this because his ties to Putin go back to the 1990s, again when both were in the authorities in St. Petersburg. Mr. Putin was in the government of Anatoly Sobchak and Mr. Mironov was in the legislature.

  • 13:39:00

    WHITMOREThe final candidate is Mikhail Prokhorov who is a billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets and very closely connected to the Kremlin. Mr. Prokhorov was supposed to form another pocket opposition party for the Kremlin called Right Cause. He was supposed to take the leadership of that party. It was going to be kind of a mirror image of Mr. Mironov of the Just Russia. So you have a fake center left party and a fake center right party, both controlled by the Kremlin.

  • 13:39:27

    WHITMOREThat project fell apart amid a bunch of acrimony. Prokhorov didn't like the Kremlin meddling in how he was running the party. He thought he could do it himself, which was rather naïve in my opinion. But now Prokhorov is running and trying to again convince everybody that, no, I'm really an opposition figure, but people don't really believe him.

  • 13:39:46

    WHITMORESo there isn't really a true one alternative that those are opposed to Putin can coalesce around. And this is exactly the point. This is exactly how the Kremlin wanted it to be. Now there's a reason it's like this. It's extremely difficult to register yourself as a candidate. You have to get something like two million signatures and the electoral commission does the Kremlin's bidding and just eliminates any candidates that seem inconvenient. Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the truly liberal and truly oppositionist Yablako party who the support of I'd say between seven and 10 percent of the population probably by my estimation, was denied registration under suspicious circumstances earlier this month.

  • 13:40:30

    WHITMORESo the Kremlin has devised a system where it's really impossible for anybody to beat the Kremlin's chosen candidate, and this is one of the demands of the protestors that the rules be eased to register candidates for presidential elections.

  • 13:40:47

    NNAMDIBut Brian, Prokhorov's Nets beat Jeremy Lin's New York Knicks last night, wouldn't that give him a surge in the polls in Russia? I guess not.

  • 13:40:56

    WHITMOREUnfortunately, no. If New Jersey were voting perhaps.

  • 13:41:01

    NNAMDINot yet. Ambassador Jim Collins, I guess final question. What can we expect of U.S. Russia relations with Mr. Putin once again unambiguously in charge?

  • 13:41:12

    COLLINSWell, there's a lot of question marks that are coming up at the moment because he has taken to a variety of statements and a kind of anti-American rhetoric that is very reminiscent of another time, and it's getting to the point now as he plays this card frequently, and his people do, that you have to ask whether it's going to begin to do some permanent damage. I think on the American side, there's no question that what we're looking for is continuity and the ability to keep the changed relationship and one for the better going and seek new ways to keep it productive during a difficult year, their elections and our elections.

  • 13:42:00

    COLLINSBut the question really is what direction is Mr. Putin going to take the country when he in all probability is president, and we don't really know, and his statements are raising questions. Now, you know, at the same time, I have to say that, you know, what I understand that is that yes, everybody is saying well, don't pay too much attention to this, it's just political rhetoric of an election year, and what we want too is to make sure we can build on the better relations and keep things going as they have been.

  • 13:42:30

    COLLINSWe know that this is also an American year, so we don't expect any big changes, or any big breakthroughs on the American side either, but let's see where we are at the end of the year, and then we'll sort of pick up from there. My guess is that the Russian view will be that there isn't much to be done of any real significance with the American government while we're in our electoral phase, and we have certainly found that it's been a difficult time to make any major breakthroughs or any major agreements with the Russian side while they're in their electoral process.

  • 13:43:05

    COLLINSSo I would say it's more or less a damage limitation year, and let's hope that we don't do -- don't make the kinds of changes during this difficult year that will make it hard to pick up and do a better job a year from now.

  • 13:43:20

    NNAMDIAmbassador Jim Collins, thank you for joining us. James Collins is director of the Russia and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1997 to 2001. Brian Whitmore, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:43:38

    WHITMOREThank you for having me.

  • 13:43:38

    NNAMDIBrian Whitmore is senior correspondent and author of the "Power Vertical" blog at Radio Free /Radio Liberty. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, what happens when your Smartphone is lost or gets stolen, what can you do and whose responsibility is it to help you? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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