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Due West: Putin Plays for Provincial Vote

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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Whether there were eight or fourteen thousand of them (figures differ even in official reports), the massive rally held in Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals region, in support of “stability” (read – PM Vladimir Putin) was an impressive affair, especially by Russia's provincial standards.

Whether there were eight or fourteen thousand of them (figures differ even in official reports), the massive rally held in Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals region, in support of “stability” (read – PM Vladimir Putin) was an impressive affair, especially by Russia's provincial standards. There were reports that workers from major industrial plants were transported to the venue on specially chartered buses and trains, and the main attraction was not Mr. Putin himself (he wasn't present) but Russian pop stars, who called on the crowd to choose Putin for president. However, the image of support for Russia's most likely next president projected by the “ordinary folks” was strong enough. The same happened earlier in the coal mining city of Kemerovo, where the Prime Minister appeared in person. There Putin said that he always felt a reliable “shoulder of the miners.” I haven't heard this kind of rhetoric from Russia's leaders since Gorbachev’s heyday, when such pronouncements became a kiss of death to any public figure. Political sensitivities seem to have come full circle now and the language of class division seems to be back in use.

At least this is my impression of Vladimir Putin's approach to elections. As all Russian presidents before him he refused to take part in public debates with other candidates. He prefers to build an image of a singularly irreplaceable leader who is busy building up the national economy and doesn't have time for empty talk with other contenders who – it is implied – are really just nobodies. What's new is that he is using “us” against “them” rhetoric trying to rally support.

“We” are supposed to be Russia's workers and remaining few peasants plus pensioners, low-level civil servants and provincial youth. “They” are the iPad carrying, latte drinking, English-speaking burghers of Moscow and Saint Petersburg – the main support base and driving force of the growing protest movement. And although Mr. Putin has stopped deriding them at every opportunity, as he used to in the wake of the December 4th Duma elections, he remains openly contemptuous of the opposition-minded urbanites. This was not always so. Despite his propensity for slang and natural comfort in the image of a street-wise kid who went all the way to the top, in his first and second term as president Mr. Putin was careful to cultivate an image of a benevolent ruler who had something for everyone in his gift bag. The economic boom of his first two terms helped to solidify his image as a benign father figure. Still he could never get completely over the mistrust of those who some commentators call today “the creative class” always mistrusted Mr. Putin's populist touch. Now this mutual animosity is there for everyone to see. The prime minister is conscientiously playing up the huge gap that exists in income and opportunities between Russia's two capitals and the rest of the country. Some of the protesters in their blogs and Twitter messages have also used language that conveyed their view of all Putin's supporters as uneducated rabble. However the overall tenor of the opposition gatherings is inclusiveness and civic pride. Although the thirty-something middle class is leading the protests, the movement itself is by no means limited to it. It sufficed for me to attend both big rallies in Moscow in December to realize that there was an entire cross section of society there. Mr. Putin's pronouncements sometimes invoke the emotions dating back to the Russian revolution and civil war. Not only is it strange for someone who aspires to the post of the head of state. It is also not a very promising campaign strategy. By reaching out to people of limited material means and education and ignoring dialogue or debate with the opposition, Mr. Putin shows that he has lost the power to persuade the country's intellectuals and entrepreneurs and implicitly admits that his power base is shrinking. It is sad because it is exactly these citizens of Russia who could and should help pull the less fortunate ones out of their current circumstances - toward a better future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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