MOSCOW - Arrivals at the Moscow Domodedovo airport are greeted by an image of Vladimir Putin at the passport control. The TV sound is off, and for a long time, the leading candidate for president is moving his lips intently and silently. Welcome to Russia. This is the picture Russians are likely to continue seeing on their TV screens for six more years, following the elections on Sunday.
Four more candidates are running for President; Mikhail Prokhorov the billionaire (6%), Sergey Mironov the social-democrat (5%), Vladimir Zhirinovsky the eccentric nationalist (8%), and Gennady Ziiganov the communist (15%), but there is not much of an "if" there.
Gorbachev: "Putin is not a dictator and evil man"
The only "if" there is - if (or when) Putin is elected, whether the protest movement might end up with violent clashes with the government forces sent to disperse the demonstrators.
Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, recently gave Putin friendly advice - not to run for the third term. Russia needs democracy, not monopoly, he said. This week, Gorbachev told Haaretz that he does not think violent quelling of the demonstrations is possible. "It will be the greatest mistake and folly", he said, adding he didn't speak with Putin personally about it, but he is sure "Putin is not a dictator and evil man".
In the influential opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta there might be some who disagree with Gorbachev, who holds 10% of the outlet's shares. Especially these days, when an intensive investigation against Alexander Lebedev's bank (another paper's shareholder's bank), led the administration to announce to the staff their salary will be withheld for a month, because of the government's crackdown on Lebedev's business.
Loneliness of an editor whose journalists are getting killed
Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta's editor-in-chief, says he is sure the timing of the sudden intensive investigation with "unprecedented" team of 130 men against Lebedev's bank is not accidental, and has a lot to do with the elections. At the newspaper's offices in Moscow, the same place where Anna Politkovskaya told me several months before she was assassinated in the lift of her building that she feared it might happen to her, Muratov lists others who worked for the newspaper who were slain in less than 20 years of Novaya's existence.
"The first one who was attacked at his apartment building stairways was Igor Domnikov, an investigative reporter. In May 2000, he was repeatedly hit on his head with heavy object and died two months later. Then there was Yuri Shekochihin. Stas Merkelov. Anna Politkovskaya. Anastasia Baburova. Natalia Estemirova."
There is no lack of threats, and Muratov says he has to fight his journalists over his new policy, of rejecting their requests to go to Checnhya.
"There are four dangerous themes," he said. "Checnya, Nazis, corruption and the secret services. And I have no means to protect my reporters lives. I don't have an army. And what can I do against the Chechen President Ramzan Kadirov, who claims his enemies are getting killed to cause him harm? And when we say Kadirov, we mean Putin."
These days, the opposition is holding vigorous debates over the course of action following the elections - whether to escalate the protest, to erect tent city in the middle of Moscow, and so on. The authorities finally agreed to allow demonstration of protest on March 5.
Muratov thinks an escalation will be a serious mistake. "I know for sure that if the extremists among the opposition activists or the provocateurs the authorities are planting there will shed blood - it will turn from an intellectual and cool protest to another typical Russian bloodbath. I rigorously oppose tent cities and unauthorized actions. Today, I've got a letter from Michail Khodorkovsky (imprisoned Russian oligarch). He also thinks that radical protest will strip this movement of any value. Revolutions are the choice of the weak and ignorant."
You? I wondered. The man who buried so many of his workers is ready to provide this regime a chance to change its ways?
"I am not focusing on Putin as a source of all evil," he said."This society allows the regime to treat it this way. But the society has awaken, it has new demands of the rule of law, respect for the people, private ownership. The snow in Moscow once again smells like watermelons," he smiled.
But he also has some tough criticism against the protests leaders. "Maybe I am not the typical representative of the Russian intelligentsia", he says. "Because the Russian intelligentsia always whines everything is going to be bad, and is glad when it turns to be true. I am not happy about it. Now they are saying there is no clear leader of the opposition. They didn't get rid yet of one dictator, and they are seeking another charismatic leader? The world is developing now according to the net principle, not hierarchy. Between the official TV party and the Internet party, the Internet won."
Alexey Navalny: "This time, there might be bigger scale of falsifications"
The most prominent figure among the protesters these days is Alexey Navalny, a crusading blogger who defined fighting corruption in Russia as his political program. He is accused by his critics of being a "dangerous nationalist", but his relentless activism, guts and 15-days arrest following the December elections for his part in the Duma protests turned him into a leader whom his most avid supporters call "the next President of Russia."
Navalny tells Haaretz these days he is busy organizing teams of observers to spot any wrongdoings at the polling stations. "At the elections, we call everybody to follow the strategy of voting for any other candidate except for Vladimir Putin, candidate of the crooks and thieves party. We are preparing teams and operative groups that will be ready to get to the polls where wrongdoings were spotted. Signals we are getting now show that this time, the scale of the falsifications will be much bigger than in December elections for Duma. That's our major focus right now, and then we'll get to the streets."
He thinks so-called "putings," demonstrations in support of Putin to which some government workers are brought with no choice by their employer, by buses, are actually good. The more people are brought that way, the more people will know how this "support" works.
I ask him what he thinks of Prime Minister Putin's prediction that the opposition is seeking confrontation and is ready to "sacrifice" someone, when this someone will get killed.
"Well," said Navalny. "These threats and warnings - all those rhetoric signals, messages they send through some people that it will be "horror-horror" - it just shows they lost their confidence and try to compensate for Putin's demise with things of this kind."
Is he afraid?
"If you are afraid, you shouldn't deal with independent activities in Russia. Because if you do get involved, you should be ready it's not going to be easy."
Putin's biographer: "His regime's pyramid base is disintegrating"
Writing critical books about Vladimir Putin is an ungrateful business. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who published a book "Putin's Russia", was killed. Another journalist, Elena Tregubova, former member of the Kremlin's pool, who wrote "The tales of the Kremlin's digger", fled to Britain after an explosive device was put on her apartment's door.
Masha Gessen, Russian-American journalist and the author of "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin", a new biography published a few days ago by Riverhead Books, says she does not always feel safe - but she doesn't want to overestimate the danger.
Gessen, who immigrated to the US when she was 14, returned to work in Russia several years ago, and has been since relentless critic of the regime. She admits she did discuss various possible negative scenarios with her partner, adding, however: "But I think for this regime I am a sort of a "pure enemy", who never was a part of any of their systems, and they hate me less than the "traitors" who used to be on their side."
Gessen is confident Putin's regime is disintegrating. "Polls that show Putin wins. Their goal is to predict the result of the elections, not to reflect the public opinion. But after the elections, he'll get an unpleasant surprise: unprecedented protests that will dwarf the December demonstrations. The worst thing is that with each day that the authorities do not show willingness to cooperate, it reduces chances no blood will be shed, and it's quite scary."
The target of the demonstrations is not Putin, she says. "It's those who are at the base of his regime's pyramid, carrying out his regime's will on the most basic level. But without them, it will collapse, the same way the regime collapsed in 1991. When you see regional newspaper's editor taking leave of absence until mid-March, chairs of the polling stations going public about December's ballot stuffing - these are all signs this regime is falling apart. That's what people felt back in 1991, that nothing works, nothing holds the top of the pyramid anymore."
"In a certain way, Putin is a straightforward and consistent man," she said. "He is a real KGB man, and he really thinks the Soviet Union was the best country, and instinctively he tries to recreate his favorite system with all instruments he has at his disposal. He also identifies himself with a state, and he takes personally attacks against the state - and thinks personal criticism against him is an anti-governmental act. It's a perspective of quite an ignorant and limited man."
Why did she call the book "Man Without a Face"?
"Because back in 1999 the President Boris Yeltzin didn't have much people left with him, except for several relatives and his political family. All charismatic politicians either were dumped by him, or left themselves. They were looking for a successor among grey officials. Putin was one of them. He was a man without history, without ideology and his own views, and, strange as it might seem today, without personal ambitions. A man without a face."
For Gessen, a possibility of tanks in Moscow if protests will turn violent, is not that surreal. "The authorities don't have capacity to deal with large protests, that's what we've seen in December. On December 5 and 6, they arrested 600 protesters - most of them were released without charges, with judges looking for any excuse not to deal with these cases. If tens or hundreds of thousands will get to the streets for unsanctioned protests, what will the authorities do? I don't think the police will execute this time an order to quell these demonstrations by force. In 1991, when the army was brought into the city, there were units that refused these orders."
You know that the authorities claim the protests are fueled by foreign money, I asked her.
"It's simply not true", she says. "I was the coordinator of all the staff that costs money, megaphones, banners. It was all paid for with money we received from donations. In the website that you can get them, there is no possibility to transfer money from abroad. They were all paid in rubles. Some by Russian businessmen. Much more small donations by ordinary Russian citizens."
When I ask her where did President Dmitry Medvedev has recently disappeared, she asks: "What Medvedev? There was no Medvedev."
The white ribbon and the Mossad
Of course, there is no lack of conspiracy theories - and even some interesting Israeli angle to the story of the current Moscow protests. In December, the Russian blogosphere was exploding with discussions over what is the best way to continue with the protests. Arsen Revazov, an Israeli advertisement specialist who returned to Moscow to pursue business opportunities there, was pondering at his Facebook page what will be the best way for citizens to identify themselves with protesters and suggested to put on the white ribbon.
"Pretty much all the other colors weren't possible to use," he said. "Orange was the color of Ukrainian revolution. Green is associated with Islam. Pink with cancer awareness. Blue in Russian, it's the nickname for homosexuals, and many Russians are homophobic. So I suggested white, "the snow revolution". The next day, TV crew came to film me putting white ribbon on my car."
Revazov was proud when the ribbons spread all over and became a symbol of the protests. But then, the FSB agents came to knock on his mother's door, asking to talk to her son about the white ribbons. "She called me in panic, and I just packed my bag and drove to the airport. What positive conversation could I possible have with FSB about the white ribbons?"
There were some immediate theories that Revazov was a Mossad agent, and so on and so forth. It took him some time to clarify he didn't get any orders from the foreign government to promote subversive ideas. Now he is back in Moscow, ready to take part in the next demonstration.
"We know Putin"
Over the last few days in Moscow, I met plenty of people who plan to vote for Putin. Some were saying they "know him" and "don't know" other candidates. Some said he brought stability after the turbulent Yeltsin years. He is also quite likable and energetic, not drunkard nor senile. People who are struggling hard to make a living, don't have luxury to ponder over constitutional nuances, others said.
One of the taxi drivers I got to spend long hours with at the endless Moscow traffic jam, told me he used to work for FSB. "My father was a big guy there", he says. "I thought there was certain romanticism about this job. I thought in Putin's Russia it's a good career. But after I left, I was looking for a job for a year and a half. Nobody wanted to take a former FSB man. I've been told "you would be too cocky" or "you'll leak stuff to FSB". Finally, I had to start driving a taxi. Even in Putin's Russia, the FSB is not that popular."
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