Kremlinology 2012

The Condomnation of Vladimir Putin

Russia’s embattled ruler meets his public.

MOSCOW – Russians had not really seen Vladimir Putin since his ruling United Russia party was walloped, at least by Russian standards, in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Since then, Moscow, and the rest of the country, had been rocked by anti-government -- and anti-Putin -- protests. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people pinned white ribbons to their coats and came out across Russia to contest the elections, expressing their displeasure at being treated like idiots by the Kremlin for the past decade. Up until Thursday, the Kremlin's reaction to this outpouring implied either panic, denial, or both. Putin remained well out of sight. He spoke through his spokesman in vague, contradictory statements, and, once, in a meeting of his People's Front, blamed the protests on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming she had sent Russians a certain "signal."

This self-imposed almost-silence ended today, in a four-and-half-hour telethon that marked Putin's first real public appearance since his glitsy thermidorian system started to unravel at the edges, and in it Putin made sure to address the outrage that drew more crowds to the streets than Russia has seen since 1993. Soothing words were not what he offered. "To be perfectly honest," he said, "when I saw something on some people's chests, I'll be honest -- it's not quite appropriate -- but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms." 

Yes, that's right: in case Russians hadn't been offended by years of brazen maneuvers and bland television tailor-made for the lobotomized; in case they hadn't been insulted by the glib switcheroo of Sept.24, when Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, announced they would simply swap positions; in case the crudely falsified elections and the baton-happy police hadn't angered enough people; Putin compared their symbol of peaceful protest, those white ribbons neatly pinned on lapels, to an unwrapped and doubled-up condom. On live TV.

The Russian Internet, not surprisingly, was quick to fire back. First to circulate was a diaphanous condom in the shape of a folded ribbon; then came Putin standing stuffily in front of a Kremlin nightscape, an unraveled condom photoshopped onto his coat. ("Happy holidays, friends!" the postcard said.) Another web parody offered a prediction: a deficit of condoms in the city on the eve of Dec. 24, the day of the next scheduled protest. Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and one of the organizers of the upcoming demonstration, even proposed a new slogan for the rally: "You're the gondon." In Russian, gondon is slang for condom -- or asshole.

Putin hardly stopped with his condom remark. Over nearly five hours in a TV studio taking questions from his public as part of an annual ritual, he often returned to his favorite theme: Western conspiracies to weaken Russia, to "push it to the side," or, as he characterized the wave of protests now unfolding around him, "a well-tuned scheme to destabilize societies" that "doesn't come out of nowhere" -- like Ukraine's Orange Revolution. As for the protesters, Russia's once and would-be future president pointed out that "there are, of course, people who have the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation, but act in the interests of a foreign government using foreign money. We have to try to find common ground with them, too, even though it's often pointless or impossible." And then there were the mere mercenaries in those peaceful protesting crowds. Putin said he knew that there were college students who received money to come to Saturday's 50,000-person protest -- "fine, let them earn a little money" -- even though the only college students reported to have received money were those populating the pro-Kremlin rallies of the last weeks. (I met one such young man, 23-year-old Mikhail, a member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group who came with his opposition-minded friends to the anti-Kremlin protest on Bolotnaya Square. He told me had been paid to show up and talk people out of their anti-Putin sentiments. His logic explained Putin's, to some extent. "I get paid for my time," Mikhail told me, when I asked why he thought his friends were lying when they said they didn't get money from the U.S. State Department. "Why shouldn't they?")

Leaving aside the constant repetition of this trope, as well as that of the evil West (which "underestimates our nuclear rocket potential"), and evil America (which killed Qaddafi), and evil John McCain (who "has blood on his hands"), the one topic -- the "red thread," according to the host -- that Putin had to keep coming back to was Saturday's protests across Russia. He tried, as best as he could, to leave aside the issue after offering bland blanket statements about citizens' rights to express their views, as well as backhanded comments about the opposition, which, according to Putin, "will always say that elections were unfair. Always. It's a question of political culture."

But it kept coming back. For a while he tried to spin the protests. "There were different kinds of people there, and I was happy to see fresh, healthy, intelligent, energetic faces of people who were actively stating their position," he said. "If this is the result of the Putin regime, then I'm happy. I'm happy that these kinds of people are appearing." He said this twice, echoing the loyalist television celebrity Tina Kandelaki's statement that those who came out across the country were "Putin's generation," a crowd of middle-class democrats made possible by his policies. (A fine theory, if one disregards the frequency with which "Putin, resign!" rolled loudly through the crowds.)

Eventually, Putin did his best to try to dodge the issue. "For God's sake, if it's so interesting to you, then I'll discuss it," he said after the host gently steered him back to it. If it wasn't the host, it was the questioners themselves, who seemed less scripted than in previous years. And, if they weren't asking about the protests and the falsified elections, they were asking about the deafness and corruption of their local authorities. Putin offered some promises of reform: Direct election of governors -- eliminated in 2004 -- but only, as he put it, through "a presidential filter" (i.e., only those candidates vetted by the president -- him -- will be allowed to stand for election.) No new parliamentary elections -- which, of course, would be logistically impossible -- but webcams installed at polling stations at the next one.

Clearly, this was an uncomfortable new position for Putin. The live question-and-answer session, a marathon of good-tsar populism, is a longstanding tradition and is Putin's favorite format. For ten years, he has swanned through rehearsed, tee-ball questions from his adoring populace, using the occasion to graciously solve a crisis for an elderly veteran or punish an errant regional authority. He was used to being charming, confident, wry. He was Putin. This year, he approached this sublime state only when tossing figures and percentages around like confetti -- one Russian journalist called him a "random number generator." For the most part, he was less than fluent. He stumbled. He interrupted people with jittery, flat jokes. His spin sounded less like spin, and more like the excuses of a truant caught red-handed. He was, in short, nervous.

And yet, there was little Putin could do with his nervousness aside from channel it into insults (see: condoms) and paranoia (see: foreign funds). This is a telling response, and representative of the state's reaction to the post-election furor: some dubious concessions -- like removing the infamous Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and promoting Kremlin ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov out of his position -- but, on the whole, retrenchment and reliance on classic Kremlin tactics. On Tuesday, for instance, we saw the owner of the Kommersant publishing house (which publishes the most important Russian daily) fire one of his top executives and the editor of the political magazine Vlast over a photograph of a ballot on which someone had written, in red ink, "Putin, go fuck yourself!" Two other top editors resigned in protest.

The unmistakable feeling, watching all this, is that either the Kremlin knows nothing else, can think of nothing else, or is too panicked to find its thinking cap and slap it on. Asked if it was true that emergency meetings were convened in the Kremlin after the initial wave of protests, Putin said, dubiously, "I was not invited to these meetings, I don't know. I'll say honestly that I didn't notice any panic." He was, he added, busy. "I was at that time, speaking frankly, learning to play hockey," he said, referring to himself as "a cow on ice." "I wasn't really paying attention to what's going on there. And I haven't been there [in the Kremlin] for a while, frankly speaking."

Outside the Kremlin, however, Putin's insult-filled telethon had the unintended effect of galvanizing an opposition that had been showing signs of fracturing. During the Putin marathon on TV, RSVPs for the December 24 rally spiked on the Facebook page dedicated to it. Users barraged it with comments about how Putin's snide and anxious performance had pushed them over the edge.

And it's true that Putin had nothing but contempt for them. "Come to me, Bandar-logs," Russia's ruler  told his perhaps befuddled viewers at one point in his bizarre show. Putin was comparing the newly energized opposition to the foolish, anarchic monkeys in "The Jungle Book." The ones who chant "We are great. We are free. We are wonderful." ("I've loved Kipling since childhood," crooned Putin.) Facebook did not take kindly to this. "What say you, Bandar-logs," one journalist quipped. "Shall we go prowling?"

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Kremlinology 2012

Nine Days That Shook the Kremlin

But what's next for Russia's newly emboldened protest movement?

MOSCOW — At around midnight on Saturday, Dec. 10, while much of Moscow had long since fallen into a collective happy, drunken swoon after some 50,000 representatives of the urban middle class successfully came out to protest the results of Russia's Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, Ketchum, the American PR agency hired by the Kremlin, sent out a news release. It came from Dmitry Peskov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's longtime press secretary.

"What we witnessed today was a democratic protest by a section of the population who are displeased with the official results of last week's elections," Peskov said. "In the past few days we also witnessed demonstrations by other segments of the population who were supporting those results. We respect the point of view of the protesters, we are hearing what is being said, and we will continue to listen to them. The citizens of Russia have a right to express their point of view, in protest and in support, and those rights will continue to be secured as long as all sides do so in a lawful and peaceful manner."

Given the scale of the Moscow protest and the demonstrations by thousands more in dozens of cities all over Russia -- the largest by far since Putin came to power nearly a dozen years ago -- it was a strange and strangely muted response. It was not as strange, however, as what Putin said earlier that day, also through Peskov. "The government has not yet formulated a position," he said.

One person, however, had. On Sunday, President Dmitry Medvedev took to his page on Facebook -- the nerve center of the protest's organization -- and said the following:

Under the Constitution, the citizens of Russia have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. People have a right to express their position, which is what they did yesterday. It is good that all took place within the framework of the law. I do not agree with the slogans or the statements made at rallies. Nevertheless, I have given the order to check all instances from polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections.

This was truly bizarre. What, after all, did the president of Russia -- at least president until next year, when Putin proposes to swap jobs with him again -- mean by it? And, odd too, not least because of the extraneous, redundant reminder that citizens have the right to freedom of speech and assembly, a right Russia's rulers have not often been eager to proclaim. The equally strange worry -- mostly on the side of the Kremlin -- that Saturday's protest, which had been permitted by the Moscow city government, would end in bloodshed seemed to imply that everyone, including Putin and Medvedev, needed this reminder. Then there was the constant marveling (including on state-owned Channel One, which on Saturday finally acknowledged that these protests exist) that the demonstrations had happened peacefully, in accordance with the law.

Perhaps the main issue was simply one of credibility: Medvedev, already about as lame a duck as a president can be ever since Putin announced in September his plans to return to the presidency in the 2012 elections, has personally, and grandiosely, ordered many investigations into scandalous things, and none has resulted in much. (Last fall, Medvedev promised to investigate the case of journalist Oleg Kashin, who was savagely beaten. He even promised to Kashin to "tear off the heads" those responsible. "Sitting here, smoking my pipe," Kashin joked on Facebook.) Perhaps this is why so very many of the nearly 13,000 comments on Medvedev's Facebook post this weekend were negative. "This is called detachment from reality," one commenter said. "You need to go see a psychiatrist."

"The president's response is ridiculous," Igor Yurgens, head of a Moscow think tank closely associated with Medvedev, told me. "'I don't agree, but we'll figure out.' That's not an answer." So far, none of the protesters' demands, from registering new parties to freeing those arrested in protests earlier last week, Yurgens pointed out, have been taken seriously.

Indeed, the trickle of official statements since the Saturday protests implies that the Kremlin is either stalling or brushing these demands aside. One of the protesters' demands was that Vladimir Churov, Putin's childhood friend and head of the Central Election Commission, be fired. He has denied well-documented election fraud and said the reams of video evidence being put forward by activists since the elections were faked by being filmed in apartments made to look like polling stations. For his services to the state, Medvedev, to his everlasting Internet shame, called Churov "a magician" last week. Yet on Sunday, the Central Election Commission shot down a proposal to consider Churov's dismissal.

Another demand was new elections. On Friday night, the eve of the big protest, the commission certified the results. On Monday, Peskov dismissed not only the possibility of new elections but the possibility of a recount. "If we take into account this so-called evidence, then they'll account for about 0.5 percent of the overall number of votes," he said. "Even if, hypothetically, every single complaint is proved in court, they would still not affect the overall outcome of the vote." Russia's prosecutor general voiced a similar view.

And speaking of the Russian Constitution, the ruling United Russia party had a rally in Moscow on Monday called "Glory to Russia!" to celebrate Constitution Day. The party promised a crowd of 30,000 people, perhaps to prove Putin right that there were just as many happy with the elections as there were who were outraged. According to the police, 25,000 people showed up. According to various reporters on the scene -- and according to photographic evidence -- there were at most 2,000. Many attendees had been bused in, a common tactic. "I don't know why the fuck I'm here," one young man told a reporter. "It's for television. These fucking KGB guys, they're lying to people on television, promising everything and doing nothing. I don't fucking need this. They canceled our classes for us to come here."

Given the money poured into loyalist youth groups -- and the money spent on busing in young bodies -- Monday's rally was an epic flop. It is also a testament to the ineffectiveness of United Russia's stubbornly sticking by its old and less-than-convincing tactics. The staged rallies are complemented by rhetorical gymnastics, parroted up and down the United Russia food chain, that smack of denial at best. Never mind that Saturday's were the largest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union, the line goes; they were nothing unusual. What's 50,000 people, after all, in a city of 12 million?

Putin and Medvedev, meanwhile, are clearly trying to buy time, though in a less-than-organized fashion. "Putin is obviously stalling," said political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who until recently worked for Medvedev and helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. "Medvedev rushed to say something negative, but Putin said he's thinking about it. I think that's the right way to go about it. They're frightened, and this has been good for the state because it has forced them to start thinking about its actions instead of going with the usual knee-jerk reactions."

Pavlovsky, who has told me he is deeply disillusioned with an uncharacteristically mistake-prone Putin, also pointed to the lack of violence and chaos at Saturday's rally. "This was maybe Putin's first correct step this whole year," he said of the Kremlin's decision not to crack down on protesters the way they did on Dec. 5 and 6, arresting nearly 1,000 people in two days. "The day of [Saturday's] protest, everything was done right from the point of view of maintaining power. If the Kremlin tried to fight it, it would now be in a deep, deaf, and probably bloody siege. Will it continue to do the right thing? -- that's the question."

Certainly, the Kremlin has shifted its rhetoric, starting out after the first post-election rumblings with vague warnings of "provocations" and civil war, to the more recent claim that many who came out on Saturday were simply curious, one-off rubberneckers. Still, there's a sense Russia's rulers haven't fully grasped the scope of the dissatisfaction they're dealing with among a largely well-heeled, well-educated, white-collar crowd.

Some insiders clearly sense trouble. On the eve of Saturday's protest, Vladislav Surkov, first deputy presidential chief of staff and the man who micromanages Russian politics and media, summoned a who's who of the loyal intelligentsia to discuss unfolding events -- a sign that he gets it. Yet those present at the meeting haven't exactly been offering soothing words about compromise. Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russia Today, said dismissively that the next protest, planned for Dec. 24, will draw fewer people "because people have to go buy presents." Maxim Shevchenko, an anchor on state-owned Channel One, in a riposte titled "Answering Fools," said the best course is to let the opposition have its protests in order not to make martyrs of them. "They are no one and have to remain no one," he wrote.

Still, Monday brought some evidence of compromise. United Russia announced it is ready to cede some of the leadership posts in the Duma to the parliamentary opposition. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who was fired by an irate Medvedev in September, said in an interview with the Russian business daily Vedomosti that he was ready to head up a liberal political party, presumably one catering to the largely white-collar crowd -- lawyers, doctors, consultants, finance workers, graphic designers, engineers, and the like -- that came out on Saturday.

Then, in a surprise and very telling twist on Monday afternoon, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov announced his intention to run for president in March 4's election. Over the summer, he tried to run exactly the kind of party Kudrin is now suggesting, but quit in frustration as the project quickly and loudly jumped the rails, for reasons that seemed to boil down to the Kremlin's insistent desire to control it and Surkov's rather intensive curation of the project. At the time, Prokhorov announced that he wasn't planning on leaving "big politics," and his return suggests that the Kremlin has allowed him back in order to distract from Saturday's events or to give people an option of a somewhat credible alternative. This would help defuse tension so that protests don't further mar Putin's one-man presidential race -- which, let's not forget, he will win -- and which will allow him to campaign without further antagonizing the already antagonized white-collar crowd.

As for the white-collar crowd ("office plankton," as they're known in Russia), many of these newcomers to political activism are now promising to come out again in two weeks, on Christmas Eve. Most likely there will be fewer people than there were on Saturday because it will be colder, because the Kremlin will throw them some scraps, because they will lose interest, or because there's still no one on the Russian political field who represents them. As most of them take pains to point out, this is no Arab Spring, and they are no revolutionaries, just some people who have woken up and who want into the system. "Alas, it will be a protest vote," said one young office worker when I asked him about what new elections -- should they happen -- would look like. "And, unfortunately, there still won't be anyone in the Duma who will represent my stance for the next five years. But it's a step. It will happen in steps, and that's OK."

That, despite its alarmist rhetoric, is exactly what the Kremlin is banking on now. As Pavlovsky put it to me, "This doesn't smell of revolution."

Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images