Putin and the Boo-boys

A new wave of anti-Putin sentiment is sweeping Russia, but with theonce-and-future president still loved by more than two-thirds of thepopulation, there’s little hope for change.

BY JULIA IOFFE NOVEMBER 29, 2011

MOSCOW – With a week to go untilRussia’s parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the stageon 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 hiscountry (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 inthe March presidential elections, which he will win in a landslide. It was botha formality and a preemptory victory lap, as well as a strange repetition ofthe September party congress, at which he and still-president Dmitry Medvedev agreed,essentially, to swap places. But if September’s convention — held at thesame Moscow sports arena as the one yesterday — was a curve ball, yesterday’sfestival of triumphalism was both expected and bizarre.

“This optimistic tonedoes not correspond to the depressive, anxious mood of many in the countryright now, and it was unclear who it was aimed at,” says political consultant GlebPavlovsky, who helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000.Pavlosvky  pointedout that Sunday’s fanfare smacked of the “pre-crisis” era — that is, the endof Putin’s first, petroleum-fueled run as president. That chest-thumping tone was fine then, says Pavlovsky, but “today, it justlooks anachronistic.”

Much has changed in theyears since Putin formally stepped down from the presidency. With Medvedev’sarrival came talk of modernization, a détente with the United States, a bitmore oxygen in the system. But in the two months since the Medvedev-Putin swap– which seemed to dismiss all of that goodwill as formalities — somethingelse has changed, too: What was once easily classifiable as public apathy hasquickly fermented into a very palpable dissatisfaction, and it is one that isincreasingly breaking through the surface, even in places where it is notexpected.

The most notable — andmost symbolic — of these bubbles has been the “booing revolution.” It startedearlier this month with a concert by a legendary Soviet rock group MashinaVremeni (“Time Machine”) in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which was going welluntil an emcee announced that the concert had been sponsored by the rulingUnited Russia party. He couldn’t finish his speech because the sudden waveof booing was so loud.Later, the local authorities threwthe emcee under the bus — they were not sponsoring the concert, and he wasjust a provocateur — but Kemerovo started a trend. A couple of weeks later, at aCheliabinsk hockey game, the captain of the local team (“Tractor”) skated ontothe ice and read a speech praising United Russia and the Cheliabinsk governor.The crowd didn’tstop 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 governorof Cheliabinsk, and United Russia with its inappropriate attempt to promoteitself.”

The main event, however,came on Nov. 20, when Putin showed up at a Moscow stadium for a mixed martialarts fight between Russian Fedor Emilianenko and American Jeff Monson.Emilianenko won, and Putin decided to congratulate his compatriot by climbinginto the ring and praising him as “a real Russian knight.” The problem was thatfew people could hear him over the sound of 20,000people booing and shouting “go away!”

When the video wentviral, Putin’s press secretary called a quick press conference to explain that the people inthe 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 wereonly 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 thefact that they — and those who were — gave Putin his first public drubbingever was highly significant: martial arts have always been Putin’s hobby cum official, heavily patronized statesport, and its fanshave always been a loyal legion. This was not, in other words, the liberalintelligentsia shouting him down; these were Putin’s own guys. It is also hardto take Putin’s spokesman’s explanation seriously if you consider the way thefight and Putin’s back-patting were televised nationally: the crowd’s booingwas carefully sliced out. (Another telling detail was that Putin simply did notshow up to two similar events later in the week, where he was listed as theheadliner.)

Thenumbers tell their own story. United Russia, the party created to support toPutin but of which he was never a member, has been sliding in the polls. On theeve of the last parliamentary elections, in 2007, it was scoring a firmtwo-thirds in national polls. This time, it is hovering just above 50 percent, having lostnearly ten points just since May. But these are national polls. In many regions– in St. Petersburg, in Astrakhan, in Kaliningrad — United Russia is doingfar 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, istaking on a life of its own with vibrant, popular candidates who are addressinglocal issues in a way that governors appointed by — and subservient to — Moscowsimply cannot.

Theofficial response to these rumblings is similar to one that we saw in the municipalelections, in August, in St. Petersburg, where in response to UnitedRussia’s abysmal ratings, the party brazenly barreled through anysense of propriety and legality to deliver 90-something percent results for itscandidate.

This autumn has seen this unapologetic approach embraced nationwide. InIzhevsk, a city in the Ural Mountains, the mayor told a group of veterans that the amountof money they receive in the future will be directly proportional to theresults they deliver for United Russia on Dec. 4. Then he outlined the earningsbrackets. In Chuvashia, in the Volga River basin, a polling station was madeinto a United Russia shrine. In Astrakhan, United Russia promisesvoters an election day raffle in which the prizes are two new cars. And inMoscow, campaign posters for United Russia were nearly identical copies of billboards put up by thefederal Central Election Committee to get out the vote. Asked about theunsavory, and likely illegal, coincidence Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin askedthe reporters interviewing him to put aside their naiveté. “Why pretend?” hesaid. “Of course we are not separate from political parties. When we talk about UnitedRussia, we mean that the Moscow city government and party are, in fact, one entity.”

Whilesuch 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-ednessoutside. This time, however, there is a key difference. The wider public knowabout most of these violations because voters have registered them on their smart phones, which means something crucial: theyunderstand a violation of electoral law when they see one. In the video of themayor of Izhevsk’s speech, for example, you can hear the person holding thecamera saying, “Oh, wow. You’re violating theconstitution, and electoral law!” It’s not quite challenging election law atthe Supreme Court, but the simple act of recording such a speech and posting itonline, of registering a complaint that a polling station is advertising oneparty alone, shows an understanding of what is and is not acceptable — and aninterest in seeing such things done properly.

Thisruns counter to one of the central theses of Putinism: that Russians are notyet ready for democracy, which is why it has to be carefully managed by asteady hand. This idea, known for a time as “sovereign democracy” and now as evolutionary, no-more-shocks democracy, made anappearance in Putin’s speech on Sunday, as did a new trifecta of the system’svalues: “truth, dignity, justice.” It is a slight update on thechicken-in-every-pot theme of stability, but events on the ground seem to pointto the fact that Russians are increasingly savvy — and sensitive — to beingtaken for fools by their authorities, and that promises of stability andprosperity are ringing hollow as the chaotic 1990s fall further and furtherbehind, 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.

Itis also a sign of political ripening. “Politics” is still a dirty word inRussia and is defined as a mucky battle for power, but there is a growingrecognition that it is also a tool for changing one’s daily circumstances. InMoscow, more people are talking about going to vote for somebody, anybody, thanfour years ago, when it was deemed pointless. The dissatisfaction withUnited Russia officials in the regions is perhaps a sign of a growingunderstanding that truth, dignity, justice — and even bread-and-butterstability — depend on a process of transparency, accountability, and fairness.And that Vladimir Putin, no matter how wonderful, cannot and has not reallyaddressed 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 inideological issues is decreasing,” says Pavlovsky. “The power structures in theregions are too weak to deal with them, because when a local boss decides whatto be scared of — Moscow, or his subjects — he’ll pick Moscow.” This is thefatal flaw of the power vertical slowly coming home to roost.

Butit would be a mistake to take this restlessness for a sea change just yet. Theresentful mood is a sign of many things, but it is still too early to tell ifthis germ will sprout, or sour. And here, the numbers tell a story, too. Muchhas been made of Putin’s slipping approval ratings. Only 31 percent would votefor him for president, according to the independent Levada pollingcenter. But his closest rival is the communist Gennady Zyuganov — with 8percent. 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 bestof days. (A euphoric week after Barack Obama was sworn in, his approval rating was 65.9 percent.)

Despiteany political ripening born of annoyance, Russians are, on the whole, still notmaking a crucial connection. A significant and growing portion of Russians recognize the long-term concentration of powerin “one set of hands” as a danger, and see a cult of personality forming aroundPutin. The number of Russians who see the government as a center of corruptionhas more than doubled over the last decade, to almost onethird. And yet, Putin’s approval rating is an enviable, healthy 67 percent.

Andthis indicates that, in spite of everything, the system is still working prettywell. The Internet, key to propagating election violations and fomentingdiscontent, has made huge inroads in Russia, but it has still not tippedtelevision, where Putin reigns supreme, into irrelevance. Many people wereoutraged and distraught by the thought of Putin unabashedly coming back topower, potentially for another 12 years, but two-thirds of them aren’t. AByzantine, corrupt electoral system still keeps those who could become a vesselfor this discontent from being listed on the ballot.

What’sleft? The street — and very few people are gathering there as of yet. “It’s amood, not a movement,” says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with Moscow’sCarnegie Center. “This dissatisfaction is not becoming action, at least not ona large enough scale. The fact is, the system has a colossal advantage in thatthey’re dealing with a society that so loves to talk and to discuss and to jokeand to snark, and yet is so bad at organizing itself.”

It’sstill too early to tell whether this kind of organization will ever happen or ifit could reach a critical mass. If United Russia doesn’t hand itself a victorygrossly 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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