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How Recent Protests In Russia Differ From Those In The Past

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across Russia, protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks in support of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Now, as Navalny faces a three-year prison sentence, his team has called off further protests for now. And Russia's foreign ministry is expelling diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland for allegedly attending what they are calling illegal rallies. Well, Maria Lipman of George Washington University studies Russia from her perch in Moscow, and she attended one of the protests there last month. I asked her whether these uprisings felt different than political protests in the past.

MARIA LIPMAN: What was different this time was the geography. It was broader than ever, more cities and towns than on any previous occasions of mass protests. And what was also very important and different is that people were inspired by the same emotion, and the chants were similar from Moscow to the Far East to other places. And the most popular chant was, Putin is a thief. What was also unusual this time is police brutality. We had it before but never on this scale - I mean, the riot police beating people on some occasions. Teargas was used. I think this was the first time teargas was used in public rallies in Russia and the electric shockers.

KELLY: I have seen reports of these latest protests - some of the protesters have been resisting in a stronger way than before, have been throwing things, for example, at the Russian security forces, have been taking even bigger risks to stand their ground. Did you see any of that?

LIPMAN: I didn't see it personally, but I saw plenty of videos. And this time around, there were indeed clashes - not too many, but there were clashes with the police. And it's not clear at this point whether probably they were provocateurs or whether the emotions were running so high as young people saw the policemen roughing up totally innocent people who did nothing wrong. We don't know. What is true about these protests is that, according to some estimates, some 40% of those who took to the streets did that for the first time.

KELLY: Well, where will all this energy go? With Alexei Navalny behind bars, with his team saying no protests for a bit until spring and summer, how do we know where the protest movement goes next?

LIPMAN: Of course, we don't. Of course, you never know with protests. And what is important to know about Russia is that Navalny is commonly referred to as the leader of the opposition, but there is no opposition if we're talking about political structures. There is not much there they can identify with to say, I'm a supporter of this party. I will vote for this movement. So it remains to be seen whether this wave of protests ebbs just like others did before it or maybe something is different this time so that this is going to be a beginning of something bigger, of something larger.

KELLY: It sounds as though, to you - someone with a long record of watching Russian politics and the Kremlin - Putin's grip on power has never really looked in danger.

LIPMAN: Well, it is certainly not in danger now. But his approval ratings have gone down somewhat, and this is especially true among the young people. And they also face the problem of an aging leader who is no longer his nation's uniter. In fact, he is his nation's divider. We might live to see the time when Putin will begin to look maybe not as an asset but a liability to the Russian establishment. I'm not seeing it from here, but this is something to watch maybe for years to come.

KELLY: That is Maria Lipman. She's a senior associate at the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia. That's at George Washington University. We reached her today in Moscow. Maria Lipman, thanks.

LIPMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.