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The showdown over plans to build a church on a rare green patch in Yekaterinburg presents a challenge for the Kremlin, but President Vladimir Putin may have something to gain. Plus, a comparative look at the optics of the inaugurations of Putin and Ukraine's new president – or at least the way they got to the swearing-in ceremonies.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Walking The Walk
If a picture is worth a thousand words, these two pictures are worth at least 2,000 – maybe more.
Two video clips, actually: One shows Volodymyr Zelenskiy striding to the Ukrainian parliament for his inauguration on May 20, shaking hands and high-fiving some of the spectators lining his route behind yellow-and-blue barriers and smiling as he went, a spring in his step.
The other shows Vladimir Putin stepping into an armored Mercedes and riding down the eerily deserted streets of Moscow from the government house to the Kremlin -- presumably for his inauguration in 2012, when he returned to the presidency after a stint as prime minister and ordinary citizens – protesters and passersby alike – were kept at a distance by police cordons.
Putin does shake hands, but only with the uniformed officer who holds the car door open for him. And he makes the trip alone, the black limousine escorted by five motorcycles and flanked by two big black SUVs following a bit behind and to the side – not just a single one, as often seen when bosses in government, business, crime, or a mix of those milieus ply the streets of the Russian capital.
There’s a strong element of staginess in both clips – the comic actor glad-handing supporters as he prepares to become a real president, not just a guy who plays one on TV, and the longtime leader heading back to the Kremlin to assume the burden of power once again, staring slightly downward and swinging his shoulders in a studied “gunslinger’s gait.”
Still, the difference is striking. It plays into the perception of Ukraine’s election as a more open, democratic affair than the March 2018 vote that handed Putin his current term. An election in which a political novice who was the incumbent’s most viable challenger was on the ballot and had a chance of victory is a nightmare for the Kremlin and a dream for its opponents – and many other Russians.
Like Zelenskiy’s bouncing path to his swearing-in, the footage of Putin’s lonely trip to the Kremlin is meant to portray him as a man of the people, but in a very different way – as someone assuming a great responsibility that only he alone can shoulder and that demands a serious approach, even if it means solitude at times.
Out Of Touch?
But that’s not always the message that gets across and some analysts say that Putin -- despite winning more than 76 percent of the vote in March 2018, by the official count – seems to be losing touch with the people. Or even losing interest.
If that’s the case, his need to make that connection – or remake it – may be all the more urgent if he intends to retain power after his term ends in 2024 without actually holding onto the presidency.
Extending his current term or starting another one right away would require changing the constitution or possibly making a move even more drastic -- something past actions suggest Putin would prefer not to do, though there are signs the Kremlin is laying the groundwork to at least hold that option in reserve.
If he wants to stay on as something like a "national leader" – with no formal post or one that is less powerful than the presidency -- a strong bond with the people seems crucial. And in the confrontation over what now look like doomed plans to build a big Russian Orthodox Church on a rare patch of green in the country’s fourth-largest city, he may be seeking a way to strengthen it.
When protesters first came out to a Yekaterinburg park on May 13 to oppose the plan, it was their mission that might have seemed doomed: A few hundred people going up against both the state and the country’s dominant religious organization, which has been resurgent since the Soviet collapse and wants to build a new church on the site of a cathedral that was razed by the communist government of the Soviet Union in 1930.
Burly men in tracksuits joined security guards confronting the demonstrators, more than 20 people were detained and jailed for up to 10 days, and a prominent state TV talk-show host railed against the protesters, likening them to “devils” and denouncing Yekaterinburg as “the city that murdered the last emperor” – a reference to Tsar Nicholas II, who was killed along with his family by a Bolshevik firing squad in the basement of a house there in 1918.
When he weighed in from Sochi on the third day of protests, Putin spoke carefully and seemed to take pains to convey an air of cool unconcern. He said he had heard about the dispute “in passing,” which seems highly unlikely given its prominence.
He also called it a “purely regional story” – even though he must know that it isn’t. There have been disputes over church construction in several other cities, including Moscow, not to mention a slew of confrontations over road construction, garbage dumps, and other projects that reflect the same basic concern: that those in power, or close to it, are doing what they want at the expense of the interests, and the quality of life, of ordinary Russians.
Putin’s proposed solution -- an opinion poll to determine where people in the city of 1.5 million stand on the issue -- poses risks for the president, but also presents potential rewards.
The process that has ensued appears to be choreographed, but its exact outcome is not yet clear. Soon after Putin spoke, city authorities said construction had been suspended, and on May 22 state-funded pollster VTsIOM suddenly said a survey it conducted found that 74 percent of Yekaterinburg’s residents believe the choice of a site for the church was “unsuccessful” or “unfortunate” – and that 18 percent don’t want it built in the city at all.
This was not the formal poll on the issue – at least one more will apparently be conducted – but the regional governor quickly said that the park should be ruled out as a possible site for the church. The city mayor pushed back a day later, saying the existing site should be an option – but a major reversal of the result of the initial survey would be certain to be viewed with deep suspicion by already skeptical opponents of the church construction, something the Kremlin may not want to risk.
That means there’s little chance the church will be built in the park as planned.
For the Kremlin, conceding to protesters could set an unwelcome precedent. Church projects in two other cities have been put on hold in the wake of his remarks and there have been similar protests against a planned mosque in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, which has a large Muslim population.
An article in the newspaper Vedomosti said the result is “important and significant not just for residents of Yekaterinburg,” showing the entire country that “pressure on the authorities can force them to listen to the opinion of those who disagree with them.”
But that’s not always bad for Putin. In this case, he can stand back, above the fray, and let local authorities take the blame for the “unsuccessful” choice of a site – while taking the credit himself for a solution.
Tsar, Boyars, Priests
As journalist Maxim Edwards put it, Putin’s intervention meant that the “incredible victory” for the protesters was “to some degree, also a victory for the old ‘wise tsar versus evil boyars’ dynamic.”
All the more so because the plans called not only for a church, according to the independent Russian news outlet The Bell, but also for a commercial complex including an office building, a fitness club, and underground parking.
As for the Russian Orthodox Church, it may come out of all this with a big new temple to replace the one torn down under communism, if not in the precise location it had planned. But Putin may be able to use the dispute to let the church look more distant from the people than he is himself.