Exactly what happened at the Olympic sports arena in Moscow last Sunday night? Was the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, booed and whistled when he took the microphone to congratulate the Russian fighter on his victory? Or was the audience, a bit the worse for wear, booing the American loser off the stage? The question is still preoccupying Russia's febrile internet chatrooms.
Alexei Navalny, the blogger who posted the clip on YouTube, is a prominent critic of the government, who clearly has an interest in spinning it one way. The Kremlin obviously has an interest in spinning it the other way. Russians will believe what they believe, as you will if you see the clip. Having watched it several times, I am in little doubt that Putin's speech triggered the hostility. His unexpected absence from the martial arts tournament the next day might also support that view.
Yet, in truth, it hardly matters why a lusty bunch of fans barracked after Putin climbed into the ring and took the microphone. What matters is what a preponderance of Russians believe – and what they believe is that it is at least possible that the country's Prime Minister and former President – a leader who has enjoyed sky-high poll ratings for the best part of 12 years – was booed in public. That, over and above any reality, marks a watershed in Russian politics.
Two weeks before parliamentary elections, and another three months before Putin's name is expected to appear on the presidential ballot paper, there is palpable concern in Russia's power structures that a decade of political predictability could be drawing to a close.
Many factors feed into this sense. There is demography – fewer and fewer Russian voters remember Soviet times. There is economics – a decade of rising living standards is producing a growing property-owning middle class. And there is the access to information: satellite TV, the internet and freedom to travel have given Russians a taste of life as it is lived elsewhere. Nor is it too fanciful to hazard some inspiration from the Arab Spring. The overthrow of Mubarak, in particular, provoked lively debate in the Russian blogosphere about whether Russia might not be ripe for something similar – and, for some, despite the myriad differences, the answer was yes.
The reality is that all these changes contribute to a political scene that may look tranquil, indeed stagnant, on the surface, even as it begins to seethe in dozens of places beneath. But there is another, more immediate, reason why Putin might have been the target of public opprobrium last week. This is the so-called "24 September coup", when the United Russia party, which had a two-thirds majority in the outgoing parliament, the Duma, nominated Putin as its candidate for the presidency next year. The current president, Dmitry Medvedev, was left to serve out his remaining six months as the lamest of lame ducks.
The official explanation was that the pair had done a deal four years ago – an amicable version of the Blair-Brown pact – in which Medvedev was essentially a caretaker, allowing Putin to comply with the constitutional maximum of two consecutive presidential terms, while reserving the option to reclaim the office in 2012. Although Medvedev's poll ratings as president have occasionally nudged above Putin's as prime minister, the rationale for his return seems to have stemmed from foreboding at the top. With the political mood becoming more volatile, and the economic indicators perhaps set to turn down, the calculation was that Putin's return to the presidency would be a vote-winner, both popular and reassuring.
That this turns out to have been wrong may be a reflection of how far Russia's leaders – the populist Putin included – have become divorced from the public mood. They seem not to have appreciated that the Russia of today has come a very long way from the Russia of 12 years ago. So, while many Russians still like Putin, credit him with restoring stability, and thank him for their new prosperity, some of those same people harbour misgivings about his expected return to the Kremlin. Nor are they frightened to air their concern in conversations and on the internet, which buzzes with talk of a retrograde step that, they say, presupposes a degree of political backwardness and unsophistication in Russia that no longer applies.
There is speculation that, when the Duma elections are held on 4 December, United Russia could take less than 30 per cent in many cities; that abstention could be a form of protest, and that – with or without rigging – the results could change the political landscape before the presidential election in March. This may or may not come to pass. But when Russians believe that Vladimir Putin can be booed in public, nothing, but nothing, should be ruled out.Reuse content