The fortunes of the ruling United Russia party have been waning for some time. While President Vladimir Putin's popularity remains stable at around 65%, the party that supports him (he himself left the party in April 2012) has nosedived [ru] in the polls. Voters increasingly associate it with corruption, self-interest, and out-and-out criminality. Seeking to allay its image problem, the party announced a massive internal purge in June 2013, with Vice-Speaker Sergei Zheleznyak explaining [ru] “If a person is mixed up in criminal activities and there is documentary evidence of this, there is no place for him in the party.” Talk of improving the party's image and boosting its grassroots support also dominated at the United Russia party conference that was held October 3-5 2013.
It seems, however, that not every member got the memo on the importance of good behavior. Within three days of the conference a United Russia MP Andrei Isaev managed to get himself embroiled in yet another scandal when he and his aide, Aleksandr Poglazov, were thrown off an Aeroflot flight. Aeroflot accused Isaev of being publicly srunk, threatening the crew and delaying the flight. News of the event broke online, when Ilya Perekopsky, a passenger on the plane and vice president of Russia's most popular social network VK, sarcastically replied to one of Isaev's tweets:
Выступил на митинге профсоюзов Санкт-Петербурга, в рамках Всемирного дня борьбы профсоюзов за достойный труд
— Андрей Исаев (@AK_Isaev) October 7, 2013
I attended a demonstration of the trade unions in St Petersburg, as part of the World Day for Decent Work.
@AK_Isaev Расскажете избирателям как из-за вас и обдолбанного вашего помощника весь борт ждал, пока полиция снимет вас с рейса Питер-Мск.
— Ilya Perekopsky (@perekopsky) October 8, 2013
Tell your voters how because of you and your stoned aide the whole plane had to wait while the police took you of a flight from Petersburg to Moscow.
Perekopsky told reporters that a phone video capturing part of the event was posted online. Though Isaev is not audible, passengers can be heard shouting “Respect us, comrade!” and “Leave the plane please, we're all running late!” Following Isaev's eventual departure, the passengers applaud.
Isaev was quick to defend himself [ru] and to lay the blame squarely on his “stoned” aide:
Помощник был задержан и оштрафован на 100 рублей в связи с появлением в общественном месте в состоянии опьянения. Ко мне никаких претензий нет. Я покинул борт из-за помощника.
My aide was detained and fined 100 roubles ($3 USD) in connection with appearing in a public place in a state of intoxication. There are no allegations against me. I left the plane because of my aide.
Aeroflot disagreed, issuing a statement [ru] claiming that Isaev had threatened the crew:
Александр Поглазов прибыл на борт вместе с пассажиром Андреем Исаевым, который требовал пересадить Поглазова в салон бизнес-класса и угрожал членам экипажа увольнением и личными неприятностями. В итоге пассажир Поглазов был передан сотрудникам полиции, а Андрей Исаев добровольно отказался от полета.
Aleksandr Poglazov came on board together with passenger Andrei Isaev, who demanded that we transfer Poglazov to business class and threatened the crew members with dismissal and personal problems. As a result, the passenger Poglazov was turned over to the police, and Andrei Isaev voluntarily left the flight.
Opposition bloggers were eager to jump on what they saw as further evidence that United Russia members consider themselves above the law and rules of common decency. Popular blogger Oleg Kozyrev, referencing the 30 members of a Greenpeace vessel currently being held in Murmansk on charges of piracy, tweeted:
Загадка дня. Будет ли единоросс Исаев признан воздушным пиратом
— Олег Козырев (@oleg_kozyrev) October 9, 2013
The question of the day. Will United Russia member Isaev be recognized as an air pirate?
Ilya Yashin, a prominent member of the opposition, used the incident to take a potshot at Russia's law forbidding Americans from adopting Russian orphans, which was informally dubbed “Dima Yakovlev's law” by the press:
В июне ЕР внесла в Госдуму закон об уголовной ответственности за дебоши в самолетах: http://t.co/A90ZBpimFN Теперь это “Закон Исаева”.
— Илья Яшин (@IlyaYashin) October 9, 2013
In June United Russia introduced a law in Parliament on criminal liability for drunken debauch on planes: http://t.co/A90ZBpimFN This will now be “Isaev's law”.
Sergei Markov, a prominent pro-Kremlin political commentator, who knows Isaev personally, used his facebook page [ru] to defend the embattled deputy. Markov admitted he would likely take some flack for defending Isaev, but listed four reasons he doubted the politician had done anything wrong: Isaev has never been seen very drunk in public, Isaev is an educated and “tolerant” man, Isaev is an “optimistic and calm” person, and “maybe he was simply defending his aide.”
Poglazov has since resigned as Isaev's aide “of his own volition.” Isaev tendered his resignation [ru] from the position of Deputy Secretary to the General Council of United Russia, apologized, and stated that he was “responsible for his aide.” At the same time he has ruled out resigning from his seat or the party. Though United Russia functionaries have described this response as adequate, it seems unlikely to assuage an electorate tired of seeing their politicians act as if they are above the law. While Isaev could likely have gotten away with threatening to sack the stewardess ten years ago, such behavior now alienates not only passengers on a flight, but any Russian with a computer.
If United Russia want to improve their polling they'll have to cut down on scandals like Isaev's. Their members will have wean themselves of the “migalki” and expensive foreign property they've become used to. Or perhaps, they'll take the tongue-in-cheek advice of one Tweeter user:
Был бы у Исаева собственный самолёт – скандала бы не вышло.
— Покайтесь! (@jarilo2) October 10, 2013
If only Isaev had a private jet — there wouldn't have been any scandal.