MOSCOW, June 14 (UPI) -- As the country celebrated "Day of Russia" Sunday, Vladimir Putin's political foes used the occasion to speak out against the direction of Kremlin policies. Liberal politicians and groups claim Russia is not free. Nationalists, on the other hand, say Putin is soft on economic reform. Putin, however, is exactly where he wants to be -- between the left and the right.
Originally called "Independence Day," June 12 was renamed "Day of Russia" in 2002. State-sponsored events range from concerts, awards bestowed upon individuals for outstanding contributions to Russian culture and science, as well as a strong dose of patriotism and national pride.
Many Russian opposition figures and parties used the holiday to express their frustration with the present and to promote a future very much in juxtaposition to the political and economic realities that have come into being during Putin's presidency. Intended or otherwise, political opposition to the president enhances his image and popularity among the majority of Russians.
It is estimated that up to 2,000 people gathered in front of what use to be KGB headquarters on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad to support jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, protest against what some claim to be Russia's democratic retreat and allegations the Kremlin actively oppressed political opposition during Putin's tenure.
Among the organizers of the rally included youth groups from the liberal parties Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces. Also in attendance was the student association Ya Dumayu (I Think) and youth group Da (Yes). The Prima news agency claims the rally was sponsored by The Civil Freedom Foundation, founded and funded by exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
Yabloko youth leader Ilya Yashin, quoted by the radio station Ekho Moskvy, summed up the sentiment of the rally when he said: "It feels as if the authorities want to make us afraid, and our goal today is to come out very clearly and show the authorities that we are not afraid."
In response to Yashin and other speakers, some demonstrators are reported to have chanted, "One, two, three -- Putin out!"
The day before the rally held by the liberals, Russia's strident nationalists held their own gathering. The political party Rodina (Motherland bloc) attracted just as many, if not more, people who accused Putin's Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and the Kremlin's economic liberals of corruption, being soft on the country's enormously unpopular "oligarchs," and of economic incompetence.
As reported by the Interfax news agency, Rodina leader Dmitry Rogozin stated, "A social government should represent the interests of the majority of the people -- and the majority is against those in power. ... If the president pursued the same policy, we would say no to him, too."
Also, in an attempt to steal the thunder of liberals hoping for a "velvet revolution," Rogozin claimed a regime change would be the color "ginger" -- a direct reference to the color of Anatoly Chubais's hair.
One of the primary architects of Russia chaotic privatizations during the 1990s and now head of the country's troubled utility grid, Chubais is intensely controversial and a man who, in many ways, defines and divides Russia's liberals.
Rogozin had only scorn for the Union of Right forces -- the same party Chubais once headed and where he continues to wield enormous influence.
"They are not political opponents, but complete dregs," and he vowed to "scrape them away from power," Rogozin is reported to have said.
Between Russia's liberals and nationalist is Putin. Celebrating "Day of Russia," the Russian president stuck a completely different note: "I congratulate you on the state holiday, Russia Day. We are always proud of our country. We are deservedly proud of its great history, its outstanding contribution to world culture and achievements in the fields of education and science."
Putin continued, "We believe without reservation in its enormous possibilities, its brilliant future. I am absolutely convinced that by combining our efforts, we will be able to realize its colossal potential in the best way possible, and we will ensure that our people, both in little villages and big cities, have a decent life. And we will make our Russia a powerful, flourishing world power. The future of Russia is in your hands. Best wishes."
It is these kinds of words that have allowed Putin to capture the middle ground of Russia's political spectrum. In a few sentences, Putin expressed what public opinion polls have consistently reported -- the average Russian wants a "brilliant future," "a decent life," and "Russia a powerful, flourishing world power."
Beyond words, there is also other important political dynamics in play. Whether by design or due to the mistakes committed by Kremlin political foes, Putin continues to rob the liberals and nationalists the building blocks of widespread and popular political success.
For the majority of Russians, the national credentials of most liberals are lacking. They are faced with a deficient of liberal credentials. Standing in the middle and stealing wind from both the liberals and nationalists is Putin. This is what "Day of Russia" means to Putin and most Russians.