The Magazine

Russian Thaw

Putin loses his grip.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By CATHY YOUNG
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Clumsy smear tactics have backfired, too. On December 19, recordings of private phone conversations of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in which he made unflattering, often crude remarks about some fellow activists popped up on a Kremlin-linked news site. But instead of discrediting and splitting the opposition, this stunt helped further discredit the government. After a public apology from Nemtsov, one of the activists he had disparaged, Evgenia Chirikova, appeared with him on the Web TV channel Dozhd in a show of unity. He also filed a criminal complaint for illegal wiretapping.

Putin’s live televised call-in conversation with the public on December 15 further stoked the fire. The once and future president sounded by turns conciliatory and insulting​—​now praising the demonstrations against electoral fraud as a healthy expression of democracy, now making a crude joke about mistaking one gathering for an AIDS-prevention event because the protesters’ white ribbons looked like condoms. The crowning moment of the four-and-a-half-hour chat was Putin’s bizarre message to those Russian citizens who, he said, were serving foreign interests and unreceptive to dialogue: “Come to me, bandar-logs.” The bandar-logs are foolish and destructive mon-keys in Kipling’s Jungle Book; but, while the term disparaged the opposition, it also cast Putin in a dubious role, since the line is spoken by a killer python hypnotizing his prey.

Putin’s TV appearance reportedly caused a massive spike in Facebook signups for the December 24 protest rally in Moscow (scheduled speakers include former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev). This time, according to Nemtsov, the demands would exceed fair elections: The slogan would be, “Putin must go.”

The Russian opposition has been saying this for years, to little effect. But something has changed. On December 18, the Central Television program on the state-controlled NTV channel included an 11-minute segment that amounted to a direct attack on Putin. It opened with news that, as host Vadim Takmenev pointedly noted, “no one would have dared to publish a few days ago”: Putin’s approval rating had dropped to 44 percent (from 70 percent in 2008). The rest of the segment was an acidic commentary on Putin’s televised chat​—​his remarks intercut with clips of the hissing python from the Russian Jungle Book cartoon.

Was this a momentary lapse in censorship, or a sign that someone in the corridors of power is preparing to dump Putin? It’s too early to tell. But suddenly, Putin’s defeat at the polls seems plausible. In a November survey, only 31 percent of Russians said they would vote for Putin if the election were held the next day. Few of the remaining 69 percent, however, could name a candidate they would support. 

This could be the opposition’s chance, if it can rally behind a strong candidate. Many have hopes for Navalny, who offers a rare combination of pro-capitalist liberalism and muscular populism. This populism has an unsavory side: Navalny has flirted with Russian nationalism and, at times, pandered to prejudice against minorities from the Caucasus (his video ad promoting gun ownership featured self-defense against caricatured Chechen assailants). Navalny’s nationalism​—​which, unlike the Putin brand, has no anti-Western content​—​may be sincere or demagogic; yet his principal message is that Russians must reclaim their dignity from the “party of crooks and thieves” that has held the country in its grip for over a decade.

If Putin does get reelected, it will likely be to a morally weakened presidency and without true popular support. In this new environment, even the tame pseudo-opposition “within the system” may get more assertive, while the opposition “outside” may grow too numerous to silence or intimidate​—​at least, not without giving up any pretense of democracy. For the first time since Putin’s rise to power, the winds of a Russian Spring are truly in the air.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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