Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Putin's Boo Birds

An interesting video clip is making the rounds of the social media sites of a live Russian TV broadcast showing Prime Minister (and future President) Vladimir Putin being booed at a public event.  While heckling politicians is something of a national sport in other democracies (the US for example), public displays of displeasure against the Boss are almost unbelievable in Russia.

The setting for the whole booing incident was a mixed martial arts event in Moscow.  After the match, Putin entered the ring to congratulate the winning fighter, and that's where the video clip kicks in.  While the crowd noise is difficult to specifically make out, it is clear that they're not cheering for Putin.  The rather unpleasant din doesn't change to applause for a full 30 seconds until Putin turns to the winning fighter, Russian MMA champion Fedor Emelianenko.  The whole event went out live on Russia's NTV network and then went viral thanks to Russia active blogging community, so far the clip has been viewed more than a half-million times.

It has caused enough of a sensation for Kremlin press flacks to step in with an explanation – that the boos were actually aimed not at Putin, but at Emelianenko 's defeated opponent, American Jeff Monson, who chose Putin's speech as the moment to exit the ring.  It is a marginally plausible explanation – the tight shot on Putin speaking doesn't allow the viewer to see if Monson was in fact leaving the ring, it is noteworthy that the crowd immediately began cheering once Putin introduced Emelianenko.

And to a real extend, it doesn't matter whether the crowd was booing Putin or Monson since the perception via the internet has been set that the crowd's boos were in fact aimed at Putin.  Two recent polls also show the erosion of Putin's once-legendary levels of public support.  The Russian polling firm VTsIOM puts Putin's approval at just over 40%, while the independent Levada Center marks him lower, down at 35% (a figure interestingly reported by Russia's RIA Novosti news service); these may be poll numbers typical for an American president in recent years, but are only about half the levels that Putin enjoyed just a couple of years ago.  Analysts say that Putin's decision to swap jobs with current President Dmitry Medvedev has caused a significant number of Russians to change their view of Putin, thinking that the country will not follow through on the reforms promised first by Putin, then by Medvedev, but rather will enter another era of stagnation like the Soviet Union faced under Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s.  The global recession is also taking its toll on Russia's economy and, by extension, Putin's popularity, as inflation rises and the cost of living increases.  And there's also a thought that Russians may just be growing tired of Putin's he-man stunts, like wading bare-chested through Siberian rivers, or “just happening” to find antique artifacts while scuba diving.  The same week that Putin stepped into the ring, he also laced on a pair of skates and took to the ice with Russia's “Legends of Hockey” squad for a scrimmage.  These photo-ops that were once amusing, are starting to stray into a Kim Jong-il region of creepiness.

Still, barring an utterly epic change in circumstances, Putin is all but assured victory in the presidential elections next year, a symbol of how effectively the Putin machine has neutered the political opposition in Russia.  But signs of public discontent like the boxing ring booing show that Putin may find governing during his third term to be much more of a challenge than he expects. 
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