The Russian Winter: Putin Goes Prophylactic with the Protests

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Alexey Druzhinin / AFP / Getty Images

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrives for his annual phone-in session with Russians in Moscow on Dec. 15, 2011

Earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he was casually watching television when a strange scene came on the news. There were lots of his fellow citizens in the streets, and many of them had something long and white pinned to their chests. "It's impolite to say it, but I'll be honest," Putin recalled on Dec. 15 during a live call-in show with the Russian public. "I decided it was propaganda against AIDS, that these were, pardon me, dangling contraceptives." In fact, what was hanging from people's clothing was a white ribbon, the symbol of what is being called the "snowy revolution" against Putin's rule. But in his version of events, he hadn't heard about it. "I didn't really get it," Putin said. In particular, he didn't get why people had unrolled the condom before pinning it to their chests. "But on the whole, my first thought was that this is good, that people are fighting for a healthy lifestyle." Then Putin looked around at the studio audience, expecting someone to laugh.

Nobody did. "Some people were outright offended. Others thought it was in very bad taste," says Nikolai Zlobin, a political analyst who was sitting in the studio with Putin. In the Russian language, the word gandon (condom) is an especially crass and juvenile insult, most often heard among boys too young to know the intricacies of contraception. But as far as anyone could tell, this was Putin's message to the people watching at home — in particular, to the thousands of citizens who have donned white ribbons in the past week as a sign of solidarity and protest. As many of them quickly pointed out on Twitter, Putin seemed to be telling the ranks of his opponents that they are all a bunch of dangling condoms.

That became more and more clear as the nearly five-hour call-in show progressed. Putin was hit with one question after another about the parliamentary elections held on Dec. 4, which his political party is accused of rigging, and about the subsequent wave of demonstrations, which have been the largest ever against Putin's rule. At one point, about an hour into the show, the moderator actually apologized for the mass of questions on this one topic. "I'm not doing it on purpose," he said. "There are just a whole lot of them." To which Putin responded, "I'm sick of your elections already, but all right."

As also became clear through the course of his performance, Putin seems to have made two basic calculations in the wake of this month's unrest. He has figured that the best way for him to get elected for a third term as President next year is to pick a fight with Washington, which he did with no holds barred. (Senator John McCain got the worst of it. "Mr. McCain famously fought in Vietnam," Putin said. "I think he has enough civilian blood on his hands.") This is a predictable ploy in Russian politics, where Cold War prejudices still shape the views of many voters. According to the most recent survey by the Levada Center, 73% of respondents said last year that the U.S. is "an aggressor trying to take control of all the countries of the world." That is the constituency Putin targeted on Dec. 15 when he said, "America does not need allies, it needs vassals."

His other calculation had to do with the size of the demographic now turning against him — the young, urban middle-class voters, who have packed demonstrations this month across the country. Judging by Putin's statements during the call-in show, they are not a large enough segment of society to deserve much more than his contempt, which he served up abundantly. At one point, he claimed that one of the slogans shouted from the stage during the Dec. 10 protest in Moscow — the biggest so far, with up to 50,000 people in attendance — was "Sheep, forward!" Not only was this patently false, but it amounted to another insult: the word sheep in Russian is roughly equivalent to jackass.

For Russia's scattered opposition groups, all these slights felt like a blessing in disguise. "Now all we have to do to get people out on the streets is remind them of Putin's insults," said Ilya Ponomaryov, the parliamentary deputy who has been organizing the biggest demonstrations in Moscow. As Ponomaryov also pointed out, Putin did offer the opposition a few olive branches, although one had to search for them between the lines. For one thing, Putin said he would consider gradually allowing Russians to elect their own governors. The Kremlin has appointed them since 2004. He also said he would allow more political parties to participate in elections and, most surprising, that he would consider freeing one of his enemies, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil mogul who was imprisoned in 2004 after challenging Putin in politics. "He can't admit these are concessions, because that would be like admitting defeat," said Ponomaryov. "But there is no other way to understand them."

As for the main demand of the opposition — the annulment of this month's allegedly rigged parliamentary elections — Putin showed no sign of budging. "For me, it is clear that the attacks against these elections, which have already taken place, are secondary," Putin said. "The primary goal is the next election, the election of the President of the Russian Federation." That will take place in less than three months, on March 4, when Putin will seek to extend his mandate for another six years. His only goal between now and then will be to win those elections at any price, "to win them in the first round of voting with a clear sense of legitimacy and without any ballot-box stuffing," said Zlobin, the political analyst. To that end, he proposed during the call-in show to install Web cameras in all of the polling stations. "Let the country watch!" he declared. But that alone won't save his approval ratings, which dropped to a historical low of 44% last weekend, according to the state-run pollster FOM. On Dec. 24, the opposition plans to hold another wave of rallies around the country, demanding a new parliamentary vote. While Putin addressed the nation on Dec. 15, another 3,000 people said on Facebook that they would attend the protest in Moscow. The total now, thanks partly to Putin's condom joke, is 23,000 people.