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Re-enter Putin, weakened and resentful

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9 March 2012 09:09

John Besemeres is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for European Studies, ANU. This is part 2 of a three-part series. Part 1 here.

Vladimir Putin has run into a dilemma familiar in more genuine democracies: that of the politician people have become sick of, and have largely stopped listening to. His grossly inflated campaign rhetoric — he spoke of sinister Western enemies, the break-up of the Russian Federation, and attempts by mild-mannered middle-class protesters to stage a coup by killing one of their own and then attempting to pin the rap on the Kremlin — may have helped him energise some of his supporters but probably alienated many others. 

To maintain the support of the faithful, he needs to deliver on his promises. To recapture some of the lost sheep, he needs to somehow reconcile the urban intelligentsia. 

But it seems hard to see how he can do the former and how he would ever want to do the latter. A key part of his campaign has been to contrast the limp-wristed arty-farties of Moscow and St Petersburg with the salt-of-the-earth working classes of the provinces. In a late-night video link-up, he told workers in a remote armaments factory: 'You showed who the Russian people are, the Russian working man...You showed you are a head higher than any layabout, any old windbag'.

In fact Putin has been roundly insulting the urban middle class since the protests broke out after the parliamentary (Duma) elections on 4 December last year. Then he compared their white ribbons with condoms in an anti-AIDS advertisement, and asserted that the protesters were only out on the streets because the US State Department had bribed them (another apparent case of Freudian projection, like the attributed plot to murder one of their own). He has maintained a similar tone ever since.

Putin has for some years now lived in intermittent terror of a 'colour revolution' in Russia, unlikely as that prospect has always seemed to most outside observers. He sees the Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-5 as prototypes of externally devised and imposed conspiracies which had little to do with rorted elections or popular dissatisfaction in those countries, but everything to do with the almost unlimited capacity of foreign intelligence services to impose their will. 

He sees these developments as of a kind with the much more palpable involvement of external agencies in the overturning of the Qadhafi regime in Libya, and other Arab Spring phenomena. Not normally a man with a gift for human empathy, Putin seems to identify with Qadhafi and Mubarak, whose fate he has referred to more than once.

Putin returns to the presidency angry with his domestic adversaries and their putative foreign backers, and seemingly bent more on repression than on reconciliation. Even before the election there were attacks on a number of the most prominent of the tolerated independent media voices, either through criminal investigations or pressure on their owners. In a characteristic outburst, Putin publicly denounced one editor for 'pouring shit all over me every day'. The owners of that media outlet took the hint and went into action a short time later to reshuffle the station's board of directors. More such measures seem highly likely.

The big question is whether Putin will take on the internet purveyors of excrement. Putin is not internet-savvy, but he is probably thinking something along the lines of the wit who said, on being reproached for overstepping the boundaries of his competence: 'I can't lay an egg, but I certainly know when I get a bad one'. 

While he has more than once claimed to believe that Russia's internet should remain free, it has not been entirely free to date. Cyber-attacks from mysterious sources commonly linked to Kremlin-backed youth movements like Nashi (sometimes referred to derisively as Putin-Jugend) have often been deployed both on foreign and domestic enemies. 

But Putin may well feel now that something more major has to be undertaken against the bloggers, whose mocking attacks on the regime and on him personally have done much to cause the slide in his popularity. In addition, he can be expected to try to rein in some of the glasnost that has been spreading in the more orthodox media outlets. 

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Kuznetsov.

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