Russian premier Vladimir Putin was loudly booed by the audience (above) at a martial arts fight in Moscow on Sunday, an episode that highlights widespread public discontent with his anticipated return to the presidency.
“The crowd at a ‘no rules fighting’ match booed the champion of ‘no rules elections’” according to a joke Twitter feed.
“Pro-Kremlin officials scrambled Monday to explain away an embarrassing chorus of boos Prime Minister Vladimir Putin faced from a crowd of 20,000 mixed martial arts fans in what was likely the worst public reception of his political career,” The Moscow Times reports. “Some Putin supporters insisted that the thunderous catcalls were actually meant as praise, while others offered the head-scratching explanation that the crowd simply wanted to go to the toilet.”
The state-owned Russia-2 TV channel unwittingly broadcast an unedited recording of the incident. It later edited the sound to delete the jeering, but the political ramifications are clear, analysts suggest.
“We have never seen anything like this on this scale before. It is a symptom that some in Russian society are tired of Putin’s image,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator for Kommersant radio. “I think we are witnessing the thinning of Putin’s Teflon.”
The authorities will be concerned that the hostility did not emanate from the usual suspects of pro-democracy dissidents and civil society groups, he said.
“The people who go to watch mixed martial arts are not the iPad brigade: they are the sort of masculine audience who previously liked Putin and so what happened at the stadium is a very serious signal to Putin and his circle.”
Putin remains personally popular, with 61 per cent approval ratings, according to a recent poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center. But his ratings are starting to decline and have deteriorated markedly over the past five years.
“Many are tired of Mr Putin’s trademark authoritarian methods and fearful that his presidency could herald a period of national stagnation,” Moscow-based Charles Clover adds.
The latest demonstration of public unease will give the Kremlin cause for concern in the run-up to forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, say observers.
“Discontent with authorities is growing, and people are becoming ever more irritated that public events are interrupted by politicians they see every day on television,” said Alexei Makarkin, head of the Center for Political Technologies. “People of all walks of life are feeling irritated these days.”
Putin’s re-election bid is “making a mockery of democracy,” former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week.
But former State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov fears that the European Union is planning to put its economic interests ahead of democratic principles.
Former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and analyst Alexander Rahr want the EU’s Russia policy to focus on “pragmatic interests,” notes Ryzhkov, a co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom. Steinmeier has unashamedly stated that it “would be wrong today to pursue a Russia policy based on Western values.”
But European politicians’ insistence that they “do not have any leverage concerning the internal situation in Russia” is far from the truth:
First, European organizations should not recognize the legitimacy of the newly elected Duma and thus should not recognize the legitimacy of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Second, the new EU-Russia agreement that diplomats are currently hammering out should include a full section devoted to democracy and human rights that would carry legal obligations and a mechanism for mutual monitoring of compliance with those obligations.
Third, the EU-Russia summit next month should be postponed. That would send a clear signal to the Russian authorities that they have not upheld their obligations as OSCE and Council of Europe members. If the summit is held as scheduled, a question should be added to the agenda calling for an open discussion of the illegitimacy of the Duma elections. Fourth, democracy and human rights should become an ongoing agenda question for all meetings and summits held as part of the regular EU-Russia political dialogue.
Fifth, the Council of Europe should fully monitor the Russian authorities’ compliance with the European conventions it ratified as part of its membership in that organization, paying special attention to their compliance with rulings made by the European Court of Human Rights. Sixth, Europe should introduce permanent visa and economic sanctions against Russian officials and law enforcement officers who commit or allow human rights violations. At the same time, the EU visa procedure for ordinary Russian citizens should be simplified and eliminated completely in the near future.
Vladimir Ryzhkov is a member of the steering committee of the World Movement for Democracy. The Levada Center, is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.