I was on vacation last week, so I'm still getting caught up on things that I missed while I was away. One of those things was the inauguration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, though I don't feel so bad since most Muscovites missed out on that event as well.
Putin's inaugural was carefully crafted to impress. Gilt-covered doors were opened by uniformed Kremlin guards to allow Putin to stride across a gleaming white marble floor, in front of a gathering of decked-out dignitaries, all under a vaulted golden ceiling to take the oath of office. But there was something missing: minutes earlier, aerial shots on television showed Putin's limousine, guarded by a phalanx of motorcycle police, speeding through Moscow streets utterly devoid of people. It had the eerie feeling of one of those post-apocalypse that are all the rage today. Where were the people? (One Russian satirist even noted there were no birds in the TV shots and asked how did they drive away the birds?) Crowds turned out for the inaugural of Francois Hollande in economically-depressed France just days later, so where were the Russians to celebrate the biggest political event of the year in Russia?
The truth is that the crowds were kept away from the celebration by design, and that for all of his alpha-male bluster, Putin is, at heart, deeply afraid of the people he pledged to lead for the next six years. The fear isn't that someone in the crowd will try to assassinate Putin or commit some act of terrorism, but rather that they'll do something far more subversive, like boo, or wear a white ribbon.
The Putin team learned just how troublesome the general public could be last November. Putin stepped into the ring of a mixed martial arts event being broadcast live across Russia on the NTV network to congratulate the winning fighter Fedor Emelianenko. For Putin, a martial arts enthusiast, it seemed a quick way to score a few points and burnish his he-man image. But the crowd of 20,000 started booing once Putin hit the ring, a public scolding broadcast live to the nation that would later become a staple on Russian social network Internet sites. The Kremlin tried to spin the event as an unruly crowd jeering defeated American fighter Jeff Monson, though Internet-savvy Russians would later flood Monson's Facebook page with messages of support for Monson and to confirm that Putin was the target of their ire.
It's not a coincidence that just a month later, previously politically-apathetic Russians would take to the streets in the tens and hundreds of thousands to protest allegations of fraud in December's parliamentary elections; protests against the rule of Putin that have continued through to today (the white ribbon has become the de facto symbol of anti-Putin protesters, though the Boss, with typical Putin bravado, said the ribbons looked like used condoms).
Team Putin has learned the lesson that many other autocrats have: once the people lose their fear of speaking out against the leadership, they tend to keep on speaking. That is why we had the odd visuals of motorcycle police escorting Putin's motorcade though deserted Moscow streets, there to protect Putin from no one, apparently. This puts Putin in an odd position. He has spent the past 12 years carefully crafting an image of himself as not only a Russian superman, but also as a Russian everyman, a true man of the people; yet now he fears the people for their unruliness and their unpleasant demands that he actually make good on the promises he's offered for the past decade about tackling corruption and turning Russia's legal and political systems into something more than vehicles to simply make the oligarch class richer.
In his third term in office, Putin will likely find that actually serving as the leader of a nation is much more difficult than just playing one on TV.