MOSCOW – Since the urban middle class doesn’t want him anymore, Vladimir Putin is turning elsewhere. You just had to see the campaigning prime minister during a visit late last month in Kemerovo, Siberia, where he whipped some 6,000 miners and laborers into a frenzy by promising some $117 billion worth of public investment for the area.
That’s apparently what it takes to win over the people of Kemerovo, who have a reputation for being hard to impress. Last October, for example, locals barely noticed when the regional administration announced the sighting of a Yeti (abominable snowman). In Siberia, as elsewhere in Russia, people are generally wary of what political leaders say.
This time, though, the crowd really seemed pleased with Putin’s message. “Our country, especially in difficult times, has always been supported by the powerful shoulders of miners and metal workers,” he said. “I know that real people live here, people who know real life, not just the life that is described in magazines. I’m counting on you.”
Putin was staying on message when stoking antagonisms between European Russia’s urban middle class – i.e. those who have been demonstrating against him – and the rural working class who generally support him.
As the country’s presidential election nears, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: there are really two Russias. There is an urban middle-class Russia that is looking for changes, and there is rural Russia, where people still heat their homes with wood fires and dream of someday having running water.
Putin is depending on the latter – the austere, less pampered Russia – to win on March 4. His relationship with the former, meanwhile, seems to be deteriorating by the day. The prime minister recently sounded off against the Moscow radio station Echo for covering him with “shit all day long.” He accused the Russian writer Boris Akunin (whose real name is Tchkhartichvili) of having joined the opposition because of “his Georgian origins.” Indeed, there are days he seems to be at his wit’s end.
Except he’s not. Putin – despite the increasingly visible protests against him – is still the overwhelminng favorite to succeed Dmitry Medvedev as president, even if he falls short on March 4 of the 50% vote mark needed to avoid a runoff.
In the meantime, the prime minister’s campaign organizers are planning a series of counter-offenses to the rising protest movement. They also came up with the idea of sending some freshly elected Popular Front deputies out on the campaign trail to drum up rural support for Putin. The Popular Front is a new pro-Putin movement – founded by Putin himself – that is taking an increasingly visible role in the campaign as his controversial pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, has been asked to take more of a backseat.
Criss-crossing the country
The deputies in question include Valeri Trapeznikov, a retired machine operator from Perm; history teacher Lioumila Bokova from Saratov; and Valeri Lakouchev, a retired metal worker from Nizhni Taguil. Accompanied by Dr. Leonid Rochal, Putin’s campaign director, they are criss-crossing the vastness of rural Russia. At the various campaign stops, each member of the team addresses his own target audience: the blue collar workers talk to blue-collar workers, the doctor talks to healthcare professionals, while the teacher deals with the schools.
They have been a sensation. Not so much because of their speeches, but because of the “business jet” that they have used as transport, a Bombardier CRJ-200 with a luxurious interior. Renting the jet costs at least 100,000 euros, according to Forbes Russia magazine.
That revelation has been an embarrassment for the party. But it didn’t stop Valeri Trapeznikov, the former machine worker, from using his latest speech to bash the bourgeoisie. “The power of the people, that’s us. It is time to say no to those [protesting] clowns in Bolotnaya square,” he said to a crowd of about 15,000 in Yekaterinburg. “All those bastards would do better to come work in a factory on this side of the Urals.”
Putin’s critics dismiss such rallies as pure political theater, saying many of the people in attendance were bussed in from neighboring communities. The protesting youth hardly seem to notice them at all. Instead they prefer the kind of political showmanship that pops up on YouTube. A recent example is a music video involving former paratroopers who sing about how Putin “ruined the defense.”
“The army is a wreck,” they sing. “You spit on the soldiers and you sent the officers packing. We are respectfully asking: get lost, Tyrant! You are nothing but a civil servant, not a Tzar or a God.” The YouTube video has already been viewed more than 500,000 times.
Putin is not a God. But perhaps he is something of a Tzar. On Jan. 30, after leaving a meeting on innovation, Vladimir Putin went to light a candle in front of the Icon of the Virgin in the Tikhvin Monastery, near Saint Petersburg. It is not the first time he’s been there. Nor is he the first leader to make her acquaintance. Nearly all of Russia’s Tzars visited the Icon at one point – except for Nicolas II. And we know how his story ended.
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