This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.
When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stepped out to congratulate Mixed Martial Arts champion Fedor Emelianenko on Sunday, November 20, 2011, he was visibly taken aback when he received a less than warm response from Moscow spectators.
Putin's approval ratings have declined in recent months, but this public display of animosity towards him is perhaps the first of its kind during this election season, and it is remarkable because Putin's Russia has seen only a handful of incidents where the media captured a story that truly caught Putin off guard.
Blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny posted in his LiveJournal [ru] two videos of Putin's speech at the Olimpiysky Sports Complex in a post entitled, “The End of an Era.” In the videos, Putin stepped on stage after Mr. Emelianenko defeated American Jeff Monson and did not say anything provocative. Speaking Russian, Putin simply referred to Mr. Emelianenko as a “genuine Russian hero,” he congratulated him on his victory, and thanked him graciously.
It appears from the video that the crowd was not reacting to Putin's words but rather they were reacting negatively to his presence. Navalny's post has generated nearly 3,000 comments.
Here is LJ user poo-lin's video from Olimpiysky, which has been viewed 558,688 times on YouTube and received 2,630 comments since Navalny re-posted it on his blog:
Thanks for the video! In the annals of history it will be [remembered] as “The beginning of the end of V.V. Putin's political career” )
Twitter users responded to the incident as well.
Audience booed #Putin http://t.co/DTzNdWfq (#Emelianenko [himself is a member – ru] of United #Russia party.)
#Emelianenko win=litmus test 4 Russian media. Gazeta.ru:Putin is booed, Lenta.ru:crowd was booing Monson, Izvestiya:no mention of booing
Putin's United Russia party has been campaigning aggressively in recent months through a variety of mediums. Global Voices Author Alexey Sidorenko posted an article earlier this month, which described an incident of controversial campaigning in Russian schools by the United Russia party.
The Danger Room blog on Wired.com posted a video of a United Russia ad, which sparked controversy due to its blatant use of sex appeal, but also because it depicted irregular voting habits when more than one person occupied a voting booth:
[…] Titled with the double entendre (in English, at least), “Let’s Do It Together,” the ad follows a teenaged everyman as he chases after an attractive girl in a polling station. She flashes him a come-hither glare. The two set off into the polling booth to mark their ballots for Putin and who knows what else. Vote Vlad and this could be you. […]
Democracy Digest, a blog associated with World Movement for Democracy, contextualized Putin's current approval ratings by citing a Moscow Times article in a November 9 post:
[…] “With 61 percent of respondents expressing approval for Putin’s actions as prime minister, the October 28-November 1 poll indicates that Putin will have little trouble carrying out his plan to return to the Kremlin. But his approval rating, down from 66 percent in a Levada poll conducted October 21-24, was the lowest since August 2000, when he was dogged by the botched reaction to a naval disaster that killed all 118 crewmen aboard the Kursk submarine.” […]
Ekaterina Vinokurova wrote in Gazeta.ru blog last month about a study conducted by Moscow State University which analyzed public opinion toward politicians and political parties. The data shows that Putin's approval rating is the lowest it has been throughout the ten years the study has been conducted:
[…] According to the study, only 44.5 per cent of the population approve of Putin's political views at the start of the campaign. This contrasts against the 70 percent support, which was expressed by respondents in the 2004 campaign and 47% in the campaign of 2000.
Respondents were asked to assess different qualities of Putin from physical attractiveness to business performance. Compared with the year 2000 until the second term of Putin's admiration, voter approval has fallen by almost half: at the start of the campaign's second term and before the start of the campaign actually the third term of only 14% of respondents indicated that they like Putin's appearance against 28% in March 2000.
Most importantly in the eyes of voters, according to the study, the professional and business qualities of Putin have suffered in his years in power, in March 2000 they were praised by 69% of respondents and in the March 2004 – 64%. Before the current election campaign only 17.1% of the interviewees approve. […]
Gazeta.ru blog ran an editorial written by Andrei Kolesnikov earlier this month about Putin's relationship with the media. Mr. Kolesnikov reminded readers about the Kursk disaster in August 2000 when the Russian submarine sank off the Barents Sea losing all hands. The Kursk had been one of the first submarines commissioned after the fall of the Soviet Union and during the tragedy when the crew was stuck underwater, media outlets captured President Putin on vacation:
[…] In summer 2000 Putin, who just started to enjoy his presidency, saw on TV something he didn't like. (Maybe he'd prefer that nobody knew about this tragedy at all). A substantial part of Russian population didn't like that story. That same part of the Russian population forgave Putin the Kursk tragedy, and since then, his rating is like teflon, and the wool has been pulled over the eyes of the Russian audience so deeply that they hardly notice and their morally unexplainable indifference is huge. […]
Putin reacted to the Kursk incident by limiting the power of independent television stations. Mr. Kolesnikov continued in his editorial by reminding readers of the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis which in turn was followed by Putin's efforts to limit the power of the media:
[…] And then it happened again in 2004, when Chechen terrorists took a thousand schoolchildren hostages on the 1st of September and Izvestia national newspaper editor-in-chief did what every editor in the world was doing then – published the photographs showing the horror of what had happened.
After 2004, TV and print media controlled by Kremlin didn't make such mistakes anymore– and by that we mean in their professional work, they avoided offending the aesthetic feelings of Russia's National Leader. The curtain of stagnation fell over TV screens and across front pages, and the “Father of the People” still calls it ‘Social Stability’. Everything that crosses that line of TV series, where Comrade Stalin is a protagonist, the talk-shows with him again, the borders of dance reality shows and humor programs – it's all called “accruing of political capital”. […]
Yuri Mamchur described in RussiaBlog in December 2007 just how popular Putin was in anticipation of the 2008 Russian presidential election. He also suggested that with regard to Putin, sometimes election outcomes don't always reflect approval ratings.
Hugely so, judging from Russia's December 2 parliamentary elections. Putin's United Russia party and its allies captured 400 of 450 seats in the Duma, making it highly likely that Putin will remain in power when his term ends next year. With widespread reports of voting irregularities, the election was not exactly a pure measure of Putin's popularity. Many voters were forced to mark ballots in full view of soldiers, for instance, and United Russia reportedly bought votes with cash and vodka. Still, such tactics were probably not necessary. Pre-election surveys put Putin's approval rating above 70 percent, and by all accounts, most Russians revere him.
In the comments to Navalny's video post, many bloggers do not seem too impressed with the booing of Putin and call the “end of an era” interpretation of the incident “wishful thinking.” Others, like LJ user mig_25tt, agree [ru] with Navalny:
Here we go – the opinion of the electorate… Honest and objective.
This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.