In more than 50 cities across Russia, thousands of protesters are demanding the expulsion of Vladimir Putin’s government today. The coordinated rallies have been dubbed, somewhat extravagantly, “The Day of Wrath,” and their main organizer is the Solidarity movement. Below are excerpts from my interview last month with the co-founder and leader of Solidarity, Boris Nemtsov, who lays out the opposition’s goals and its strategy for confronting Putin in the streets. But first today’s top news from the protests.
John McCain met recently with Nemtsov, who asked him to “Speak up for us.” On Thursday he did, saying from the Senate floor that the world will be watching the Kremlin during Saturday’s protests:
“This is about universal values — values that we in the United States embody but do not own … values that should shape the conduct of every government, be it ours or Russia’s or any other country’s,” McCain said, “And when we see citizens of conviction seeking to hold their governments to the higher standard of human rights, we should speak up for them.” Via Foreign Policy
On Saturday, Russian police shut down the main website coordinating the protests — 20marta.ru — on the grounds that it is “extremist.” Via RIA Novosti.
In Arkhangelsk, the main organizer of the city’s demonstrations was arrested the day before the event for allegedly stealing a cell phone. Via Ekho Moskvy.
More than 50 people have been arrested in Moscow’s Pushkin Square for participating in unsanctioned protests. The City authorities have banned Saturday’s protests in the capital, saying all the city’s central squares had already been reserved for other events. Via Ekho Moskvy.
At least 1,500 people turned out in the Pacific port of Vladivostok, raising their hands to support a motion to dismiss Putin’s government. Around 1,000 rallied in Saint Petersburg, with a large rally planned in Moscow for later in the afternoon. Around 1,000 people who gathered in the Siberian city of Irkutsk to decry Putin’s decision to reopen a factory that locals say pollutes Lake Baikal cheered as opposition politicians called on Putin to quit. Via Reuters.
Boris Nemtsov, interviewed at his office in the Taganka high rise in central Moscow on Feb. 27:
Discussion is forbidden in our country… All forms of protest, even if allowed under the constitution, are in practice forbidden. The opposition has been crushed, the parliament is a fiction, political activism is a parody, elections are a fraud. Therefore there is this condition in the country that the only method of speaking out is the street. Putin did that, he created that.
The Russian people are patient, but he has created a condition with his sovereign democracy that the only way to be heard is to go out onto the street in protest. There are no elections, censorship is total, and there is no political competition, no debates, no parliament. He is reaping the fruits of his work, which has been going on for ten years now.
Second, in our country we have the appointment of governors who are simply thieves… What this expresses is the general attitude of Moscow toward the regions: ”Who are you to talk? We’ll figure everything out without you.”
This is one of the peculiarities of Putinism. Arrogance, vanity, the desire to be an oligarch, the land-baron mentality, this is the style of the regime that drives people mad.
The people [in Kaliningrad] of course hate [their governor Georgy] Boos, but they feel that Boos was placed their by Putin, and Putin has to answer for him. The slogan at that protest was “Putin must answer for everything.” That is the real paradigm shift.
Whereas before, say in Pikalyovo, people said “Putin will come and resolve everything.” Now people understand that the preacher makes his church, that Putin made Boos. That’s very important. People stopped believing in the kind baron and the evil landlords, they stopped believing in that.
The Kremlin spindoctors are trying make it look as though we came from Moscow and riled everyone up. We were the mainstream of the movement, but we were not an inflamatory element. Nothing of the sort. Before us we had Chisalin, Misha Chisalin, he demanded Putin’s resignation, and he was the main organizer of the protest [in Kaliningrad on Jan. 30, 2010].
I think this year is going to be the year of anti-Putin protests. For ten years, [Putin] was building underneath himself the
pyramid of power, ten years he was convincing people that everything has been built, that there is a boss at the top that is going to keep everything under control. And the people believed him.
But now the people have problems. The roof started to leak. Or the neighbor peed on my doorstep. Or a drunk guy started a fight and the cops won’t do anything.
Now Putin is being held directly responsible for the everyday problems of people across the country. He did that to himself by making himself like Santa Claus. You give a christmas tree here, a birthday dress there. But he played this game too long. People came to believe that he is the one who decides everything, and now they have more serious problems. He can’t fix all of them, so very quickly he becomes the bad guy.
Governors are happy with a situation where Putin is made to answer for everything. It frees them up to do whatever they want.
Putin left he opposition only one way to fight: the streets. He did that. So our strategy is the street. He left us nothing else, so we are going to the street.
The growth of political activism goes hand in hand with a deep disappointment in Putin. Our challenge is to push him out.
De-putinization is the key challenge because he is pushing Russia into the third world.
De-putinization for me is synonymous with Europeanization. To remove Putin is to put Russia on a path to Europe.
There was a cynical deal made between Putin and the people. He agrees to give them money, and they agree to give him power. Now the money is drying up, so the deal is broken.
We have to give the people back power.
To put it bluntly, a protest in Moscow of a 100,000 people all demanding Putin’s resignation would spell the end of his
regime. So the goal is 100,000 people on the streets of Moscow. After that we’ll get elections, and then we’ll see who wins and who loses. Put the point is we have to get rid of him. He is dangerous.
In Kaliningrad there were no divisions among the opposition groups. Everybody came out onto the square. It’s not like that yet in Moscow. But with time I think that unification is possible.
Problems that hit the pocket book are much more clear to the people than abstract notions of civil rights and freedom.
We have to watch the overall environment very carefully. We have to spot where protests are flaring up, and we have to act on that. At first it will be a mosaic. It will be fragmented… But eventually the whole country will catch on.
You know what people are realizing now. That they are facing the prospect of Putinism lasting another 14 years. I’ve been trying to get people to realize that, and it works. A lot of them tell me, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought about it that way. But that really is too much.
If re-elected in 2012, Putin will be free to hold the presidency until 2024, when he will be 72, another Russian leader for life.
Quotes from the Nemtsov interview were first published in TIME on March 7.