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Putin's Winter Of Discontent (updated x2)

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attends a training session of the "Ice hockey legends of the USSR" club in Moscow on November 18.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attends a training session of the "Ice hockey legends of the USSR" club in Moscow on November 18.
It is not entirely clear whether the fans at Moscow's Olympic Stadium were booing Vladimir Putin when he stepped into the ring to address the crowd following a martial arts match on Saturday, or whether -- as the events organizers claim -- their ire was directed at the defeated American fighter.


But what is abundantly clear is that the incident has fed a narrative that has been building in Russia over the past couple months that Putin is wearing out his welcome.

As I blogged here recently, Putin's poll numbers, as well as those of President Dmitry Medvedev and the ruling United Russia party, have been in steady decline for months.

The trend seemed to accelerate with the Leonid Brezhnev comparisons that followed the United Russia congress in September, when Putin's plan to return to the Kremlin was announced.

But as "Kommersant" reported last week, a roundtable at Moscow State University's Department of Sociology and Psychology of Politics illustrates that the public's changing attitude toward the long-serving leader go even deeper.

On participant in the roundtable, Yelena Shestopal, noted that Putin is now facing a new generation that is less amenable to his political charms than their parents were:

The demand for stability typical of the 2000's is changing beyond recognition. We have in Russia the first post-Soviet generation of citizens who learned the official liberal lexicon... and is prepared to be active... It is the passiveness of the majority that is playing into the hands of the powers that be at this point. And yet, well-educated young Russians of the middle class are fairly critical with regard to the powers that be.

Another participant, Victor Titov, noted that the public is growing increasingly weary of Putin's macho PR stunts like driving a Lada through the Far East, scuba diving for buried treasure -- or making an impromptu appearance at a martial arts bout:

At first, emphasis was made on his assets - a real macho, dependable, charismatic, strong-willed, and so on... But now twelve years after, Russians are no longer blind to his liabilities as well. It means promises that were never kept, absence of control over his subordinates, the deterioration of living standards.

Titov noted that Medvedev's image has also suffered since the United Russia congress in September, when Putin's return to the presidency was unveiled.

Russians had viewed Medvedev "as a nice person but not as a politician or leader. That's what attracted Russians," he said. "The castling move proclaimed at United Russia congress in late September, however, changed everything. Unconsciously, the Russians began perceiving Medvedev as first and foremost a weak politician."

Titov added that "Medvedev and Putin are seen as people who are in the position to accomplish something but who never even try."

Another participant in the symposium, Vladimir Lapkin of the Institute of Global Economy and International Relations, noted that the public was also souring on the staged Potemkin political theater that substitutes for real debate in Russia:

Society is becoming weary of what passes for political struggle in Russia or rather...of the political struggle in the form society is forced to accept. It means that mass conscience will start formulating a demand soon for a resolute energetic policy of competition for resources of development. In fact, it will create some serious risks for the next president.

In a recent commentary published in "Vedomosti," Mikhail Dmitriyev and Sergei Belanovsky of the Center for Strategic Research came to similar conclusions as the Moscow State University roundtable.

The authors called the creation of the Putin-Medvedev tandem a masterstroke that consolidated two opposing poles in Russian society:

From the social standpoint, formation of the tandem was an exceptionally successful move. It happened almost inadvertently just when society was splitting into two camps with polar and therefore incompatible ideological values and political expectations. The establishment of the tandem solved the problem of appealing to both camps.

Putin and Medvedev appealed to different social poles. Their individual brands complemented each other, camouflaging at the same time the accumulating conflict of interests of these very poles. Medvedev's brand appealed to the part of society longing for overdue modernization. Putin's in the meantime appealed to the traditionalists and conservatives within society.

But the decision to have the two switch jobs after the 2012 election essentially emasculated Medvedev as a politician and severely damaged Putin's image as well:

The forthcoming castling move exposed Medvedev as a political tagalong lacking the qualities and traits expected in a national leader playing the part of a consolidator. It is logical to assume therefore that Medvedev's personal brand is devalued as a political asset. Instead of being an asset for the regime as such, it is a liability.

The damage to the image of the tandem is irreparable because the support lost by Medvedev does not go over to Putin. It follows that the aggregate political basis of the tandem is weakened. It is particularly noticeable on the right flank of the political spectrum that has nobody in the upper echelons of the state power to appeal to and regard as its potential leader.

The damage done to Putin's brand seems to be less serious but serious all the same. His brand is all alone now, face to face with the problems of its political ageing and inability to appeal to both social poles. The castling cannot help making changes within the upper echelons of state power less probable and weakening the chances of an adequate dialogue between the authorities and society.

This will all probably not mean much for the 2011-12 election cycle. The Kremlin's command of administrative resources is more than sufficient to achieve the results they want.

But where it will matter -- and matter big time -- will be when the elections are over and Putin needs to preside over what are certain to be very unpopular reforms in Russia's creaking social service infrastructure without the reservoir of support he has historically enjoyed.

UPDATE (November 23, 2011): The video of the booing incident has now gone viral, with 1,599,107 views on YouTube as I am writing this -- making it today's most viewed video. The video also boasts 13,437 "likes" and just 926 "dislikes."

Moreover, the Facebook page of Jeff "Snowman" Monson, the defeated American fighter the Kremlin claims the fans were booing, is now filled with supportive comments from Russians who assured him they were booing Putin and not him.

Here are just a few examples (click the link above for the whole shebang):

"Jeff, get well soon! Best regards and respect from Siberia, Russia. You fought honestly. Sorry for our government and corrupted mass media," wrote Ekaterina Shipilova.

"You're a great fighter. Fight vs. Putin. Fight vs. politicians," wrote Aleksey Dolya.

"Russians occupied this area, mwuahhaha! Jeff, don't be surprised by this much attention from us, it caused by the lie in Russian media that we were booing at you after the fight with Fedor, and we just want to clear it out that the target actually was Putin. We love such humble and sincere persons like you here in Russia. Good luck for you, Jeff, you're the man," wrote Alexei Novikov.

This must be very disturbing for the Kremlin. Those who attend martial arts fights like the one in Moscow's Olympic Stadium Saturday should constitute a key part of Putin's base -- and once did. If he is losing them, that is an ominous sign indeed.

UPDATE 2 (November 23, 2011): This video, shot from another angle, shows many in the crowd clearly booing Putin. Also audible are shouts of "ykhodi!" (go away!).


The original video, meanwhile, now has over 2 million views on YouTube.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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