When Vladimir Putin stepped into the ring at Olimpisky Stadium in Moscow after a martial arts fight at the weekend, he appeared to be greeted by a chorus of boos.
There were jeers as Putin, a judo black belt who performs macho stunts to buoy his popularity, gave a short speech congratulating Russian Fedor Emelianenko for beating American Jeff Monson.
But, as with so many things in Russia, it all depends on your point of view as to whether the booing was directed at the Russian prime minister or not.
Putin’s supporters said the catcalls were not a sign of dissent but came from beer-guzzling fight fans expressing their need to get to the toilets.
The Russian leadership has been scrambling to explain the unprecedented boos and whistles that filled the stadium on Sunday night.
‘End of an era’
The event, broadcast live on state television, was called the “end of an era” by the anti-regime blogger Alexey Navalny and a video of the catcalls has already been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube.
Kremlin officials saw things rather differently.
“People, have you gone completely mad?” asked Kristina Potupchik, spokesperson for Kremlin youth group Nashi. “I was at Olimpisky tonight [Monday], people were screaming and whistling from happiness.” She wrote that the shouts and whistles “were most likely linked with the stupid organisation of entry and exit into Olimpisky”.
“Some of the 22 000, their bladders filled with beer, started to protest against their inability to empty them. Yes, that happens. You should go to the toilet beforehand, gentlemen,” Potupchik wrote.
Navalny and other commentators seized on the clip as a sign that objection to Putin has spread beyond the small liberal opposition to the wider public since he announced his intention to return to the presidency next year.
Drop in ratings
Putin’s ratings have dropped significantly since the September announcement. Pollster VTsIOM puts his popularity at 45% and the Public Opinion Foundation at just over 54% — a far cry from the 70% ratings he was regularly polling during Russia’s oil-fuelled boom years.
Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov defended the prime minister’s popularity rating. “Sometimes it’s a couple of percent down, sometimes a couple of percent up, but in general his popularity is outstanding,” he said.
He too said the booing had nothing to do with Putin’s speech. “I was there myself and when he entered the ring, at the same time they started to carry out the American. The majority of voices was about this American,” he said.
He blamed Russia’s vocal blogosphere for whipping up a storm. “It was very well orchestrated on the internet, on all these blogs,” he said. “Mr Navalny is known very well. That’s why don’t intend to over exaggerate the importance of it.” —