The Russian Winter: Putin Goes Prophylactic with the Protests
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 Thursday, 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.
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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 alright.”
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 re-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 Thursday when he said, “America does not need allies, it needs vassals.”