With Russia’s presidential election mere days away, the government of Vladimir Putin is pulling out all the stops to bolster Putin’s tattered domestic image.
Putin’s latest stunt comes courtesy of Russia’s government-run Channel One television channel. On Monday, the channel reported that Russian and Ukrainian special forces recently foiled an assassination plot against Putin in the port city of Odessa. The conspirators, apparently Islamic separatists, had allegedly been sent to kill Putin by the Chechen warlord Doku Umarov.
The story was certainly sensational. Yet the timing of the report, just days before Sunday’s election, is nothing if not suspicious. That is all the more so because Russian authorities had apparently learned of the plot during the first week of January and Channel One received details of the story over 10 days ago. Pointing to that fact, Russian opposition activists have plausibly charged that the channel sat on the story and timed its release to coincide with this weekend’s election.
Indeed, the assassination plot report plays into a common Putin theme – namely, that Russia is surrounded by security threats, foreign and domestic, and that only Putin can be counted on to keep the country safe. As one opposition activist put it, the plot is intended “to bring attention to Vladimir Putin, and to develop this idea that there’s a threat everywhere. It’s a spectacle.”
It’s not the only “spectacle” on offer. Last week, the Russian government bestowed a high-profile cultural award on a Syrian writer known for his virulently anti-Semitic and anti-American views. Little known outside his native Syria, where he is an apologist and apparatchik for the dictatorship of Bashar Assad, Ukla Ursan achieved a small measure of notoriety for writing gleefully about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “My lungs filled with air, and I breathed in relief as I had never breathed before,” he wrote in one article. Ursan went on to write that while he felt some momentary compassion for the victims of the attacks, “My soul was inundated by tremendous bitterness, revulsion, disgust towards the country that in the past half-century has racked up only a black history of oppression and support for the aggression and racism of the Nazi Zionists and for apartheid in South Africa.” For this, Ursan was awarded the Pushkin Medal for what the Russian government described as his “valuable contribution to developing humanitarian relations.”
If the award seems like a deliberate jab in the eye of the United States, it is. While Russian authorities denied that current politics had anything to do with Ursan’s award, there can be little doubt that it was intended as a show of defiance over the U.S.-led effort to oust Assad and to end the escalating violence in Syria – an effort that Russia, backed by China, has done its determined best to thwart at the U.N. Security Council.
The award, the latest in a series of anti-American provocations by the Putin government, can only serve to poison diplomatic relations with the U.S. But as an electoral matter for Putin, that is beside the point. His clear aim is to show that Russia under his leadership is not beholden to the dictates of the United States, even if that means siding with tyrants who are prepared to slaughter their own people by the thousands.
This would not be the first time that Putin has resorted to political stunts in the run-up to an important election. Conspiracy theories still circulate that the government was behind a series of apartment bombings on the evening of Putin’s first election in 2000. Whether or not that’s true, Putin certainly tried to exploit the attacks to his advantage, blaming the bombings on Chechen terrorists and successfully presenting himself as the man to keep Russia safe. More recently, during the 2008 election, the government claimed to have stopped a sniper planning to kill Putin near the Red Square. Given this recent history, it’s little wonder that many Russians have dismissed the latest assassination plot as business as usual by the Kremlin.
The symbolic purpose of these political stunts is to portray Putin as a strong leader, but increasingly the image he projects is one of weakness. Months of popular demonstrations against the government, driven by chants of “Russia without Putin,” have given the lie to official claims about Putin’s popularity and exposed a real rift within Russian society. Putin may still control the levers of power in Moscow. But as Russian protesters demonstrated this weekend, when they formed a ten-mile long human chain around the Moscow center, the city is no longer his.
By themselves, such symbolic gestures will do little to prevent Putin’s all-but-certain victory this weekend. But for the first time during Putin’s one-man rule, the now-familiar gimmick of a pre-election assassination plot cannot detract from the Russian public’s growing desire for a time when Putin’s days truly will be numbered.
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