Not much about Vladimir Putin’s recent behavior has been wholly surprising. Repressive, compulsively controlling autocrats don’t usually stop amassing power and quashing dissent and individual rights on their own volition. Though Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime has lost him the benefit of the doubt of many in the West, that is more a result of the self-delusion of Westerners than any sudden dark turn by the man whose political nemeses have ended up dead, exiled, or in Siberian prisons for a decade.
But the closest thing to a surprise has been Putin’s bungling of his once-masterful image management. By now everyone knows the ready availability of cheesy propaganda photos of Putin–shirtless, discovering ancient artifacts, subduing wild animals, feeding baby animals, perfectly executing a judo strike, etc. Want a slideshow? You’ve got your pick of news organizations happy to oblige. Putin has crafted his image from the very beginning; his biographer Richard Sakwa has noted that Putin self-consciously mimicked the concept of “third way” politics from Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and fashioned himself a leader in their mold.
According to Sakwa: “Putin was one of the new breed of politicians of that time, such as Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in Britain, for whom news management often acted as the substitute for policy, and where policy development remains shrouded in a dense fog of spin and show,” and whose popularity “is nurtured and tended like a delicate plant, with focus groups, private polling and the manipulation of information.” Suffice it to say that Clinton and Blair were freely elected leaders of free countries, and Putin is out of his mind if he thinks he’s entitled to compare himself to them. But nonetheless, the point is that he has always taken great care to manage his image and has done so with success–too much success for comfort, in fact.
But those days appear to be behind us. It’s not just that by staying in power for so long Putin is earning comparisons to Leonid Brezhnev. It’s that he’s making mistakes he didn’t used to. Perhaps he can’t help himself, since he’s a power-mad authoritarian, but the illusion of the benevolent dictator is gone, and probably for good. His decision to retaliate against perceived diplomatic slight from the U.S. by outlawing American adoptions of Russian children, and thereby consigning poor, disabled, and malnourished Russian children to the outrageously ill-stocked Russian orphanages, was the very definition of gratuitous cruelty.
His jailing of a self-styled “punk rock” trio for stomping around a Moscow church was silly and heavy-handed, and will only further damage the Russian Orthodox Church’s credibility by tying the church to Putin’s repression. It also brought down the wrath of the denizens of pop culture by angering famous musicians who are happy to pretend to care about human rights if it offers them the chance to publicly bask in their own evanescent relevance.
And now he has taken action that will surely diminish his own authority. Putin has always fallen back on opinion polls showing his high approval ratings to prove he has the consent of the governed. Because there are no other political figures permitted to enter the fray in any real way, and because state media tars any would-be challengers before they can make their own name, those polls are often accurate. Putin has been the indispensable man, and a combination of nationalist pride and economic stability has kept his poll numbers afloat.
Yet now Putin’s latest affront to civil society, forcing NGOs beyond his reach to register as “foreign agents,” puts in danger the survival of the one high-profile independent polling institute in Russia. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports:
Prosecutors this week officially warned the polling agency that it is in breach of legislation requiring politically engaged NGOs that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” The center acknowledges that a small portion of its budget comes from foreign sources. Prosecutors allege that its research constitutes “political activity.”
The warning comes shortly after the Levada Center released polls showing President Vladimir Putin’s popularity falling, sparking allegations that the prosecutor’s move was politically motivated.
The Levada Center’s director, Lev Gudkov, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the move threatens the pollster’s continued existence.
Levada split from a government pollster in 2003 to maintain its independence. Practically speaking, the attack on Levada is illogical. Putin’s popularity remains well above 50 percent even in Levada’s recent poll. No one is allowed to run against Putin, so opinions polls don’t matter much to elections. And those elections aren’t free and fair, but are manipulated to whatever extent is necessary to keep Putin and his party in office. Meanwhile, he can always point to Levada’s independent polling to claim political legitimacy.
Levada’s polling was the one strand of authenticity to Putin’s hold on power. If Levada goes under, all Putin will have left is his own propaganda. Putin may be a thug, but he’s always been a clever thug. His paranoia has finally got the best of him, and the Russian people will get the worst of it.