The collapse of Vladimir Putin’s expert image management continues apace. Perhaps the proliferation of smartphones and social media, combined with the rise of a younger generation of Russians with no memory of their country before Gorbachev, made it inevitable. But it has not been without its unforced errors. And Putin’s expulsion of journalist and author David Satter, who writes regularly for National Review Online and was working with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, appears to be the latest example.
I wrote in May of last year that Putin’s paranoia had gotten the best of him, and was taking increasingly self-defeating steps to crack down on the opposition. One such move was targeting the one independent polling outfit. Putin usually gets relatively high approval ratings, and the fact that these ratings were coming from a respected outlet was hugely beneficial to Putin. Threatening its very existence was not just wrong, but also impractical.
Yet now a new pattern is emerging: Putin keeps targeting precisely the groups who can roust international sympathy on their behalf. The first of these was Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Putin has generally received a pass from the Western left for his expansionist instincts, but he put himself on the wrong side of the Arab Spring as far as they were concerned. Suddenly, he had crossed a line among many commentators who apparently hadn’t noticed how often his professed enemies ended up dead or his consistent support for the Iranian nuclear program.
Then when an all-female performance art/punk rock outfit pranced around a Moscow church, Putin overreacted, having them charged with hooliganism and put in jail after a show trial. Their stunt was obnoxious, but Putin made them heroes in the music world. Suddenly shows were being held in their honor abroad and Madonna was performing with their band name written on her skin.
Putin’s support for Russian anti-gay laws set him against the human-rights community and the Western press. And now he is going after the Western press itself. On his website, Satter goes step by step through the process of his expulsion. After giving him the run-around and delaying his paperwork, Satter finally got a meeting with senior diplomat Alexei Gruby:
9. On December 25, I called Gruby to arrange a meeting. He told me that he had a statement to read to me. It said: “The competent organs have decided that your presence on the territory of the Russian Federation is undesirable. Your application for entry into Russia is denied.”
10. On December 26, the U.S. Embassy issued a note of protest and the fact of the visa denial was confirmed. Attempts for three weeks to learn the reason for the refusal were unsuccessful. The Foreign Ministry stated that “according to Russian law, the reasons for refusals are not divulged.”
11. On January 14, 2013, the Foreign Ministry, ignoring its earlier claim about the demands of Russian law, issued a statement saying that I was banned from Russia for five years because I had overstayed my visa by five days. They did not mention that they were responsible for not providing the promised invitation that would have made it possible to obtain a visa on November 22 and, in that way, avoid any violation. There is also no mention of the fact that a number was issued on December 23, a month after the incident by the Foreign Ministry for a new invitation to be taken to the Russian Embassy in Kiev.
12. The real reason for my refusal was the one given by Alexei Gruby in Kiev. I was expelled from the country at the demand of the security services. This is an ominous precedent for all journalists and for freedom of speech in Russia.
The fact that the security services–the “competent organs,” in the Russian government’s hilariously Yury Dombrovsky-esque phrasing–wanted Satter out and were willing to say so is noteworthy. Why stir up more trouble and negative press heading into the Sochi Olympics? That might actually have something to do with it, suspects CNN:
In December, after suicide bombers killed more than 30 people in the Russian city of Volgograd, Satter wrote for CNN.com that visitors to the upcoming and highly touted Winter Olympics in the Black Sea city of Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.”
Perhaps Putin and the Competent Organs (a great name for a band, incidentally, if Putin ever wants to get serious about his music) thought Satter’s work was more damaging to his precious Olympics than having him booted and banned for five years.
Each of these PR disasters, of course, could have been the result of such cost-benefit analysis. Defending the church from the punk rockers put the religious authorities back in thrall to the state. And helping Assad defeat his rebellion elbowed the U.S. further out of influence in the Middle East while also sending a signal to his own protesters back in Moscow. But however Putin might justify his behavior, it comes at the cost of proving his critics right.