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Russians perplexed by Putin's snub of G8. Is it because of protests? Obama?

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Today the Moscow daily Kommersant reported that the Kremlin leader's first foreign trip will probably be to isolated, anti-Western Belarus, followed by a meeting of the Central Asia-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organization in China in early June.

Unprecedented defiance

Some argue that Putin, mindful of a national history that has seen two mighty Russian states collapse under the impact of social discontent in the past century alone, has decided to play it safe and remain at home until it's clear where the current protest movement may be leading.

"Everyone underestimated the energy of popular protests," says Sergei Davidis, a leader of the opposition Solidarnost movment. "A lot of people thought it would all calm down [after the inauguration]; but that's not happening, and people are finding new ways to express their civil position. Things like this camp are new for Russia, and the authorities are flummoxed to find that cracking down and arresting people doesn't stop it. People are saying they don't want to wait another six years [till the end of Putin's term] to see changes."

The appearance of this defiant little camp, and the wide social resonance it's drawn, suggests that Russia's middle class, anti-Putin protest movement that began with a few huge rallies against electoral fraud in December is rapidly shape-shifting and becoming a permanent fixture on Russia's political landscape. But the numbers of people involved are still relatively few, and the mood is more festive than revolutionary.

"Here there's no difference between left and right. Everyone lives together in tents and gets along because they all stand for honesty," says Olga Romanova, a journalist who's become a leading opposition figure and a regular denizen of the Chistye Prudi encampment. "Even if this camp is swept away – as it will surely be – we'll go to new places and find new ways to express ourselves… 

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