Russia’s Bo-Toxic President Returns

MOSCOW – When a tsar is treated with mockery, rather than regarded with awe, it is time for him to consider retirement, or to prepare for a palace coup. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who intends to stage a glorious return to the Kremlin as President in the election scheduled for March next year, should reflect on that choice.

This year began with a vigorous (by Russian standards) Internet petition urging Putin to take the first option. Then the whole country laughed when, during his customary visit to a patriotic summer camp run by Nashi (a pro-Putin youth movement), he demonstrated his physical prowess by scaling a rock-climbing wall, only to find that he couldn’t climb down.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

Now Russians wonder what has happened to their leader’s face. His new smooth-faced appearance has sparked rumors of Botox, or even plastic surgery. Vampire jokes abound.

Recently, during a dive in the waters at Krasnodar, in southern Russia, Putin miraculously salvaged two ancient Greek urns. Russians’ laughter turned Homeric when Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, inexplicably announced that the urns had been placed there to give Putin a sense of importance.

If I didn’t take the incompetence of the Russian state at face value, I might suspect a conspiracy to discredit Putin. For, make no mistake: Putin has been discredited. After a recent martial-arts match between an American and a Russian, Putin, a judo enthusiast, stepped into the ring to congratulate the Russian victor, a member of his United Russia party. The audience screamed wildly, “Putin, go home!” until he did. Politics, the crowd seemed to say, should be taken out of sports – and Putin out of politics.

Putin thinks that his stunts are essential to governance. He has kissed dolphins and babies, saved tigers and journalists, and posed bare-chested on horseback and on foot in the Siberian wilderness. But Putin the performer cannot abide a bad review. Embarrassed by the judo fiasco, he canceled all of his subsequent unscripted public appearances.

In fact, since that incident, Putin has attended just one event – the Congress of United Russia – where 600 delegates voted unanimously for his nomination as the party’s presidential candidate in 2012. But the parliamentary elections held on December 4, which gave barely 50% to United Russia (Putin used to be able to guarantee about 70%), had to be fiercely controlled, with an overwhelming police presence. Observers were harassed and obstructed, and monitoring Web sites were shut down or hacked by the government. An elections-observing mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that “most parties have expressed a lack of trust in the fairness of the electoral process.”

Putin’s extravagant vanity has severely undermined the strongman image that he has spent the last 12 years building. After all, narcissistic publicity stunts and facelifts – which worked well for his friend Silvio Berlusconi in Italy (until they didn’t) – don’t inspire fear, or even respect, among Russians, where an iron-fisted ruler is always the preferred choice. So now Putin’s image as the hard man of politics has been lost forever. It is difficult to assume a despotic countenance when you can’t move your eyebrows.

Indeed, Russians heckle Putin not because he has turned Russia into an industrial banana republic, where exports of oil and other commodities sustain a quasi-authoritarian state, but because he no longer inhabits his role convincingly. All the same, the origin of discontent with Putin is irrelevant; the desire for freedom has to start somewhere. So long as Russians feel empowered to confront the regime, even if only with contempt and laughter, there is hope for change. And now, with the election results inciting the largest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that hope is growing. When a tsar loses his image of omnipotence, he eventually loses his grip on authority.

After Putin’s long-running melodrama, the Kremlin’s options for a sequel are quite limited. Everyone expects that the current president, the puppet Dmitry Medvedev, to switch roles with Putin after the March elections. But waiting in the wings is former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who could replace Medvedev should Russia need a factotum of sincerity about economic reform. Kudrin’s reputation for placid competence might just buy Putin some extra time.

But, in Putin’s eyes, this is an unlikely scenario. The once and future president argues that he has already made Russia stronger, and that, as financial uncertainty grips much of the developed world in 2012, the country has become an island of stability envied by many. Perhaps, but it is difficult to be a heroic leader and the butt of popular jokes simultaneously.

Putin is often compared to Joseph Stalin, but nowadays, as the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse at the end of 1991 approaches, he looks increasingly like Leonid Brezhnev – the symbol of a political system that is well past its expiry date. All that is missing are the jowls.