It was just about the only venue that can make Vladimir Putin feel at ease these days: a stadium full of the party faithful, shipped in from all over Russia to wave flags and chant his name. That was the scene on Sunday at a gathering of his United Russia party, which backed Putin's bid for a third term as President. But as Putin felt obliged to point out, even its members didn't seem all that excited. "When you cheer for Russia," he chided from the podium, "the entire hall needs to ring!" And only then, as he pounded the rhythm with his fist against the lectern, did the delegates chant to his satisfaction. It seems he really needed the encouragement.
The past few weeks, as United Russia prepares for Sunday's parliamentary elections, the party and its leader have taken some withering blows. Newspapers and blogs have spent more than a week obsessing over Putin's last major public appearance, when the audience of a cage-fighting match in Moscow greeted him with booing and jeers. This was a first in Putin's political career, and it seemed to leave him shaken.
On Nov. 23, when Putin was due to speak at the same venue this time during a benefit concert against drug abuse he simply did not show up. He was scheduled to address a similar event three days later at a stadium in his hometown of St. Petersburg, but instead he sent his deputy, Dmitri Kozak, who has long been Putin's favorite troubleshooter. When Kozak took the stage, he was nearly drowned out by the din of booing, whistling and shouts of "Shame!"
So the crowd control at this weekend's United Russia summit was predictable enough. For blocks around, police forbade even old ladies from approaching the Luzhniki sports complex, where the summit was held, while inside the stadium the bleachers were packed with Kremlin youth activists. In the aisles, gray-suited men were getting orders in their earpieces on when to chant and would then lead their sections in shouts of "Pu-utin! Pu-utin!", which periodically interrupted his speech. It all had a distinctly North Korean flare the phalanxes of bureaucrats, the micromanaged crowds and sitting in the stands, it was hard not to wonder what had happened to Putin the showman, who not so long ago inspired adoration, or at least convincing applause.
Age happened, for one thing. Putin will turn 60 next year, and he is not the spry young populist he was when he took power 11 years ago. A survey released last month by the Levada Center polling agency showed Putin now inspires less public sympathy than at any point in his career. The number of respondents who felt "affinity" for Putin has fallen by nearly half since 2008, from 40% to 24%. In his current post as Prime Minister, his rating remains a comfortable 61% according to the latest Levada survey. But that is down from 79% a year ago, and Putin's famous popularity stunts have been unable to hinder the slump.
If a few years ago he still managed to play the Russian action hero by swimming in Siberian rivers, riding on horseback and hunting wild game, his latest adventures have started making him the butt of jokes. Last month he was ridiculed for playing a clumsy round of badminton with his protégé, President Dmitri Medvedev, and in August he donned a wetsuit and plucked two ancient amphorae from the bottom of a shallow lake. The latter stunt was such an affront to the public's intelligence how could an amateur diver dig up two treasures in the span of a few minutes underwater? that Putin's spokesman later admitted it had all been staged. "Once Putin dove, everyone wanted for him to see what it was really like down there," said the spokesman, Dmitri Peskov.
But that is not what things are really like. At the bottom of a lake, there is dirt, not archeological gems. And at a meeting of politicians, there should be some range of opinions, some discussion, not the yes-man-ship and unanimous voting that colored Sunday's United Russia summit. Boris Gryzlov, the party boss who presided, read out the results of various votes with his back to the delegates, failing even to glance around and see if any hands were raised to abstain or, heaven forbid, dissent. "This is a telltale signs of absolutism," says Evgeny Gontmakher, a Kremlin-connected pundit. "The circle of men around the leader strives to bring him good news but is afraid to show him the actual news, which is quite often bad." The result, he adds, is a "gradual detachment from reality."
That might be why a look of panic flickered on Putin's face when the crowd at the mixed-martial-arts event began booing a week ago. Perhaps he was just unaware how far his popularity has fallen. Unlike the many Twitter users in Russia's political elite, Putin famously shuns the Internet and stated in 2005 that he did not even have a cell phone. But as the slump in his ratings has shown, his echo chamber is increasingly at odds with the views of the average Russian. So Putin will have little choice but to avoid the public as the elections approach, says Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center think tank in Moscow. "No matter how tightly controlled, no matter how uncompetitive, elections are always a major strain on the system," she says. "The public mood still makes itself known, and heading into these elections it is more sour than it's been in years, certainly since 2004," when Putin was running for his second term as President.
That doesn't mean Putin or his party will be voted out of power this time. With no political competition and full control of the electoral bureaucracy, United Russia will hold on to most of the seats in the parliament and Putin will return as Russia's President next year. But in the process, reality will likely come creeping in, and Putin will either be forced to face it or slink back into his comfort zone, where banging his fist on the lectern can still make people stand and cheer.