A new wave of anti-Putin sentiment is sweeping Russia, but with the once-and-future president still loved by more than two-thirds of the population, there's little hope for change.
MOSCOW – With a week to go until Russia's parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the stage on Sunday, Nov. 27, in front of 11,000 hooting, flag-waving United Russia delegates. He delivered a vigorous, nebulous speech about how long he has served his country (his whole life) and led a few cheers (when I say "Russia," you say "Hoorah!"). Then he formally accepted the party's nomination to represent it in the March presidential elections, which he will win in a landslide. It was both a formality and a preemptory victory lap, as well as a strange repetition of the September party congress, at which he and still-president Dmitry Medvedev agreed, essentially, to swap places. But if September's convention -- held at the same Moscow sports arena as the one yesterday -- was a curve ball, yesterday's festival of triumphalism was both expected and bizarre.
"This optimistic tone does not correspond to the depressive, anxious mood of many in the country right now, and it was unclear who it was aimed at," says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. Pavlosvky pointed out that Sunday's fanfare smacked of the "pre-crisis" era -- that is, the end of Putin's first, petroleum-fueled run as president. That chest-thumping tone was fine then, says Pavlovsky, but "today, it just looks anachronistic."
Much has changed in the years since Putin formally stepped down from the presidency. With Medvedev's arrival came talk of modernization, a détente with the United States, a bit more oxygen in the system. But in the two months since the Medvedev-Putin swap -- which seemed to dismiss all of that goodwill as formalities -- something else has changed, too: What was once easily classifiable as public apathy has quickly fermented into a very palpable dissatisfaction, and it is one that is increasingly breaking through the surface, even in places where it is not expected.
The most notable -- and most symbolic -- of these bubbles has been the "booing revolution." It started earlier this month with a concert by a legendary Soviet rock group Mashina Vremeni ("Time Machine") in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which was going well until an emcee announced that the concert had been sponsored by the ruling United Russia party. He couldn't finish his speech because the sudden wave of booing was so loud. Later, the local authorities threw the emcee under the bus -- they were not sponsoring the concert, and he was just a provocateur -- but Kemerovo started a trend. A couple of weeks later, at a Cheliabinsk hockey game, the captain of the local team ("Tractor") skated onto the ice and read a speech praising United Russia and the Cheliabinsk governor. The crowd didn't stop booing until the player had skated back to the bench. Afterwards, Tractor's fanclub clarified that "we were booing not Antipov [the team captain] who read that speech with a sour face, but the situation itself, the governor of Cheliabinsk, and United Russia with its inappropriate attempt to promote itself."
The main event, however, came on Nov. 20, when Putin showed up at a Moscow stadium for a mixed martial arts fight between Russian Fedor Emilianenko and American Jeff Monson. Emilianenko won, and Putin decided to congratulate his compatriot by climbing into the ring and praising him as "a real Russian knight." The problem was that few people could hear him over the sound of 20,000 people booing and shouting "go away!"
When the video went viral, Putin's press secretary called a quick press conference to explain that the people in the stands were actually booing Monson. But hearing this, Russian fans took to Monson's Facebook page to leave shout-outs of "respect" from different corners of Russia. "Jeff," one Russian fan wrote, "all whistles were only for Putin and for his party -- they are the greatest thiefs in our history [sic]." Many of these Facebook fans were not at the fight that evening, but the fact that they -- and those who were -- gave Putin his first public drubbing ever was highly significant: martial arts have always been Putin's hobby cum official, heavily patronized state sport, and its fans have always been a loyal legion. This was not, in other words, the liberal intelligentsia shouting him down; these were Putin's own guys. It is also hard to take Putin's spokesman's explanation seriously if you consider the way the fight and Putin's back-patting were televised nationally: the crowd's booing was carefully sliced out. (Another telling detail was that Putin simply did not show up to two similar events later in the week, where he was listed as the headliner.)
The numbers tell their own story. United Russia, the party created to support to Putin but of which he was never a member, has been sliding in the polls. On the eve of the last parliamentary elections, in 2007, it was scoring a firm two-thirds in national polls. This time, it is hovering just above 50 percent, having lost nearly ten points just since May. But these are national polls. In many regions -- in St. Petersburg, in Astrakhan, in Kaliningrad -- United Russia is doing far worse. These are also regions where, to everyone's surprise, A Just Russia, a party created by the Kremlin, in 2006, to siphon off left-wing votes, is taking on a life of its own with vibrant, popular candidates who are addressing local issues in a way that governors appointed by -- and subservient to -- Moscow simply cannot.
The official response to these rumblings is similar to one that we saw in the municipal elections, in August, in St. Petersburg, where in response to United Russia's abysmal ratings, the party brazenly barreled through any sense of propriety and legality to deliver 90-something percent results for its candidate.
This autumn has seen this unapologetic approach embraced nationwide. In Izhevsk, a city in the Ural Mountains, the mayor told a group of veterans that the amount of money they receive in the future will be directly proportional to the results they deliver for United Russia on Dec. 4. Then he outlined the earnings brackets. In Chuvashia, in the Volga River basin, a polling station was made into a United Russia shrine. In Astrakhan, United Russia promises voters an election day raffle in which the prizes are two new cars. And in Moscow, campaign posters for United Russia were nearly identical copies of billboards put up by the federal Central Election Committee to get out the vote. Asked about the unsavory, and likely illegal, coincidence Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin asked the reporters interviewing him to put aside their naiveté. "Why pretend?" he said. "Of course we are not separate from political parties. When we talk about United Russia, we mean that the Moscow city government and party are, in fact, one entity."
While such tactics are evidence of what one source here called a "deer in headlights" feel in the couloirs of Moscow, it is also a testament to a fed-up-edness outside. This time, however, there is a key difference. The wider public know about most of these violations because voters have registered them on their smart phones, which means something crucial: they understand a violation of electoral law when they see one. In the video of the mayor of Izhevsk's speech, for example, you can hear the person holding the camera saying, "Oh, wow. You're violating the constitution, and electoral law!" It's not quite challenging election law at the Supreme Court, but the simple act of recording such a speech and posting it online, of registering a complaint that a polling station is advertising one party alone, shows an understanding of what is and is not acceptable -- and an interest in seeing such things done properly.
This runs counter to one of the central theses of Putinism: that Russians are not yet ready for democracy, which is why it has to be carefully managed by a steady hand. This idea, known for a time as "sovereign democracy" and now as evolutionary, no-more-shocks democracy, made an appearance in Putin's speech on Sunday, as did a new trifecta of the system's values: "truth, dignity, justice." It is a slight update on the chicken-in-every-pot theme of stability, but events on the ground seem to point to the fact that Russians are increasingly savvy -- and sensitive -- to being taken for fools by their authorities, and that promises of stability and prosperity are ringing hollow as the chaotic 1990s fall further and further behind, and as real issues born of the current system have taken their place. This echoes, in some ways, the inflection point in the post-War Soviet Union, when the ideological argument of historical perspective lost its bite.
It is also a sign of political ripening. "Politics" is still a dirty word in Russia and is defined as a mucky battle for power, but there is a growing recognition that it is also a tool for changing one's daily circumstances. In Moscow, more people are talking about going to vote for somebody, anybody, than four years ago, when it was deemed pointless. The dissatisfaction with United Russia officials in the regions is perhaps a sign of a growing understanding that truth, dignity, justice -- and even bread-and-butter stability -- depend on a process of transparency, accountability, and fairness. And that Vladimir Putin, no matter how wonderful, cannot and has not really addressed the fact that, say, the growing cost of utilities is fast outstripping pensions. "There's a growing interest in economic and local issues, while interest in ideological issues is decreasing," says Pavlovsky. "The power structures in the regions are too weak to deal with them, because when a local boss decides what to be scared of -- Moscow, or his subjects -- he'll pick Moscow." This is the fatal flaw of the power vertical slowly coming home to roost.
But it would be a mistake to take this restlessness for a sea change just yet. The resentful mood is a sign of many things, but it is still too early to tell if this germ will sprout, or sour. And here, the numbers tell a story, too. Much has been made of Putin's slipping approval ratings. Only 31 percent would vote for him for president, according to the independent Levada polling center. But his closest rival is the communist Gennady Zyuganov -- with 8 percent. Still a landslide. As for Putin's approval ratings, they have, in fact, fallen, from 80 percent -- to 67 percent. That's an approval rating that most world leaders don't have on the best of days. (A euphoric week after Barack Obama was sworn in, his approval rating was 65.9 percent.)
Despite any political ripening born of annoyance, Russians are, on the whole, still not making a crucial connection. A significant and growing portion of Russians recognize the long-term concentration of power in "one set of hands" as a danger, and see a cult of personality forming around Putin. The number of Russians who see the government as a center of corruption has more than doubled over the last decade, to almost one third. And yet, Putin's approval rating is an enviable, healthy 67 percent.
And this indicates that, in spite of everything, the system is still working pretty well. The Internet, key to propagating election violations and fomenting discontent, has made huge inroads in Russia, but it has still not tipped television, where Putin reigns supreme, into irrelevance. Many people were outraged and distraught by the thought of Putin unabashedly coming back to power, potentially for another 12 years, but two-thirds of them aren't. A Byzantine, corrupt electoral system still keeps those who could become a vessel for this discontent from being listed on the ballot.
What's left? The street -- and very few people are gathering there as of yet. "It's a mood, not a movement," says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with Moscow's Carnegie Center. "This dissatisfaction is not becoming action, at least not on a large enough scale. The fact is, the system has a colossal advantage in that they're dealing with a society that so loves to talk and to discuss and to joke and to snark, and yet is so bad at organizing itself."
It's still too early to tell whether this kind of organization will ever happen or if it could reach a critical mass. If United Russia doesn't hand itself a victory grossly at odds with its poll numbers (it avoided making this mistake in 2007), chances are the system can hobble on a good while longer. Just how much longer, though, may depend on how long they can take the booing.
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