Kremlinology 2012

Putin and the Boo-boys

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.

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Kremlinology 2012

Meet the New Putin, Same as the Old Putin

As the de facto president seeks to reassure foreign investors, it's clear that everyone's a little on edge.

MOSCOW — Speaking at the Russia Calling! investor conference, hosted by state-owned VTB Capital, on Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tried to reassure both Russian and foreign investors that, despite Russia's recent political uncertainty, despite the tanking Russian stock indexes, despite the sliding ruble, despite more money than usual fleeing Russia, despite the bad to worse news coming out of Europe, despite all this, everything in Russia is going to be OK. The future is clear and under control.

"I'd like to speak about our priorities, about Russia's strategic plans, so that investors and business can understand the logic and motives of our behavior, especially now, in these uncertain times," Putin said. "And, of course, it is exactly in such times that the trust of our partners is so important. And you -- we understand this -- need predictability and openness." His speech was flecked with the vocabulary of reassurance. Soothing phrases like "we understand," "we see," "we know" broadcast the image of a captain at the wheel, steering the ship of state past all that ice in the water because, don't worry, he sees it.

Putin had already tried to smooth these choppy waters two weeks ago at the conference of United Russia, his ruling party, by announcing his return to the presidency, potentially for 12 years. The point was to erase the uncertainty that had the bureaucracy playing musical chairs all summer and return some stability to the system. But that quickly backfired. "Brezhnev" and "stagnation" quickly became the words of the day, and not two days later, Alexei Kudrin -- finance minister and darling of the West, whose conservative budgetary policy had saved Russia from calamity in 2008 -- was fired by a jumpy Dmitry Medvedev. The plan to stabilize things had, in other words, opened up a whole new can of entropy. Or, as one prominent Western investor in Russia described the whole thing in the couloirs of yesterday's conference, "Yeah, it was a fuckup."

Thursday's performance was a take two of sorts. Putin seemed to be speaking not only to the class of people who squeegee money around the world, but to a broader audience of those who wonder what's in store for Russia with another decade of Putin on the horizon. Putin's answer today was, in so many words, that Putin's back, and he's the same Putin he's always been.

"Changes are, without a doubt, necessary, and they will happen," Putin intoned from the podium, "but it will be an evolutionary path. We don't need great shocks, we need a great Russia!" Responding to a question about the growing number of Russians wishing to emigrate, Putin said:

Both I and the acting president Dmitry Anatolievich Medvedev have sent a clear and precise signal to the country: We are not going to destroy, mangle, or demolish anything. We're going to develop our political system, but we want to strengthen its fundamental foundations. We have lots of political bustlers -- faster, higher, stronger, use your saber to chop this, hack that. But we've already gone through this. We've seen this several times in our history: We'll destroy everything, and then? And then what?

"We'll build a new world, whoever was nobody will become somebody." We all know these words [from the Internationale] from our childhoods. And what came of it? What came of it is that, in the 1990s, everything collapsed. So all of this "hack," "chop," "run without turning back" -- we have to put an end to all this. We have to calculate, carefully pinpoint the destination point of our progress, and confidently move in that direction. That is how we should act, and I'm certain that that's when your mood will change, too. It's not an easy task, but we can do it. We can do it!

Here, certainly, is the language of a Russia traumatized by a revolution whose pain is still all too fresh. But it is also the language of Putin the standpatter, and invokes his favorite straw man: the 1990s. There are many people in Russia -- people now in their thirties, for example, or the educated, urban elite -- who remember the 1990s as a golden age of liberation. Not so for those who fell into penury, or for Putin. Reared in one of the most conservative organs of the Soviet state, the KGB, Putin saw the change of the 1990s as a destructive, negative force. (Which, of course, it was, too.) His spin-doctors use this narrative to legitimize the stability of Putin's own era: the peaceful golden years after the storm.

This story gives the people a reason not just to trust one strong leader, but also to trust in incremental, shuffling, even glacial change. Yesterday, addressing the need to decrease the role of government in the economy, Putin said, "We will gradually -- I want to emphasize this, gradually -- start to extricate ourselves from the capital of state corporations." Putin doesn't like responding immediately to public pressure. Putin doesn't like firing people. When Medvedev fired two of his loyal generals -- Kudrin last month and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, in 2010 -- Putin was publicly silent. But those close to him spoke of a rankling discontent with this very public act of firing a standard bearer for a rash remark. For the sake of unity and loyalty -- two more Putin obsessions -- Putin had to abide by his president's actions. Had it been Putin's choice, however, he would have promoted them out of their post (as he just did, in fact, with Medvedev).

This is why Putin addressed the issue of Kudrin's firing as he did. During his prepared remarks, he only obliquely referred to the recently departed finance minister. He spoke of Russia's growing currency reserves and increasing rainy day funds, which Kudrin insisted on during the good times of the last decade. The policy incurred the wrath of United Russia, which wanted to spend more on bread and circuses, but it was these cushions that saved Russia when the world economy tanked in 2008 and dragged Russia down with it. Kudrin's firing at such a volatile time unnerved investors: Would Russia now spend its money willy-nilly, making the Russian economy even more vulnerable to swings on the world commodities markets? Once again, Putin reassured investors. "Our priorities -- and I especially want to emphasize this -- have been and will continue to be budgetary discipline and increasing the effectiveness of spending, as well as limiting the growth of government debt," Putin said. Don't worry, investors: Kudrin may be gone, but Kudrinism stays.

But when he was asked by a Scandinavian investor about Kudrin's firing, Putin said something a bit different. After pointing out that Kudrin is one of the foremost financial specialists in the world, Putin began by saying, "Personally, he is my very good friend, with whom I have maintained very tight, close relations over the course of many years, beginning in the 1990s." Loyalty, 1990s.

Then Putin let it out: "It's well-known that the decision was made by the president. It was made because Alexei Leonidovich made a series of incorrect statements about the fact that his position does not coincide with that of the president. What else can I say?" After distancing himself from Medvedev's decision, Putin turned the knife. "I want to tell you -- this is my opinion, and the opinion of President Medvedev -- despite this emotional malfunction, Alexei Leonidovich remains a member of our team, and we will continue to work with him. I hope that he will work with us. He is a useful and needed person." More useful, that is, than the walking "emotional malfunction" that is Medvedev.

As if Putin hadn't humiliated and negated Medvedev enough over the last two weeks, here was one more opportunity to show that the president was president only because of a technicality. As Kommersant pointed out, just the title of "the acting president" -- which was how Putin insisted on referring to Medvedev throughout his forum appearance -- was a slap in the face: "Actually, one speaks about a person like this only after the election," Kommersant said. The title puts a sand timer on the title bearer's head, as well as on all his "emotional" decisions. This is what Putin intended to do on Sept. 24, but Medvedev foiled it by asserting his -- now purely technical -- authority.

Yesterday, Putin put an end to all such attempts. Make no mistake, investors: He is the president de facto. No more emotional malfunctions. To underscore that, he picked up the themes that had been seen as Medvedev's pet projects: fighting corruption, promoting nanotechnology and innovation generally, and diversifying the economy away from dependence on natural resources. The purpose was twofold: to show that the Kremlin would not abandon those (very necessary) initiatives, and to show that, all along, they had been Putin's. Change would continue the way it had always been happening, slowly to the point of it being indistinguishable from inaction, and festooned as always by pretty rhetoric.

At the end of the performance by the de facto president, Andrei Kostin, the head of VTB, his host at the conference and, apparently, his very exuberant fan, thanked him. "Vladimir Vladimirovich! You have a very momentous period ahead of you, and I'd like to wish you not just success, but the most conclusive success!" Kostin said, red and beaming. "Investors vote not just with ballots, they vote with investments. I think that, in half a year, there's enough time to figure things out and invest in the Russian economy."

So far, they've voted by taking $50 billion out of Russia so far this year, beating every prognosis for capital outflow. Perhaps the next six months -- roughly the time Medvedev has left as "acting president" -- will be different from the other months, when he was just acting.

AFP PHOTO / NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA