Last September, after the news that Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was set to return as President in the March 2012 election, Russian writer Dmitry Bykov penned a satirical poem about winning a bet with a political analyst who had insisted that there would be no Putin comeback. The poem ended with a twist: Maybe it's not over yet—after all, Putin could still lose! (Then, Bykov wrote cheekily, he would gladly buy the winner not just the wagered case of cognac but a case large enough to house a think tank.) This conclusion was clearly meant to be a bitter joke with a dash of wish fulfillment. But what if Putin's expected victory is shakier than commonly thought?
This question received a sudden prominence after a startling incident in Moscow a few days ago. On Sunday, November 20, after a mixed martial arts fight at the Olimpiysky ("Olympian") Sports Arena between Russian fighter Fedor Emelianenko and American Jeff "The Snowman" Monson, Putin stepped out into the ring to congratulate Emelianenko, the winner. The crowd responded with loud boos and whistles. In one video filmed by a member of the audience, there is a clearly audible shout, "Go away!"
The embarrassing moment was broadcast live on one of Russia's main news channels, Rossiya-2. When the time the footage was replayed on a later news program, the offending sounds had been muted. But it had already become a case of boos heard 'round the world. The clip from the original broadcast quickly showed up on YouTube, followed by amateur videos.
The government's heavy-handed attempts at damage control kept the story alive—and made it worse—as official and semi-official spinmeisters tripped over each other with conflicting explanations: People weren't really booing, they were cheering. Or maybe grumbling loudly because the exits were closed and they needed to go to the toilet. Or, better yet, they were really booing Monson. This last version, from Putin press secretary Dmity Peskov, was a particularly bad faux pas: Many Russians were offended not only by the blatant spin but by the implication that Russian fans would insult a sportsman in honorable defeat.
In a fascinating manifestation of Internet-age politics, thousands of Russians converged on Monson's Facebook page to express sympathy. More than a week later, messages still poured in, some saying simply, "Respect!", others making openly political statements in often broken English ("Putin is KGB thug and will always and forever be KGB thug. Free Elections in Russia!") or in Russian (a recent one translates roughly as, "Putin-scum get out!").
Interestingly, two days later Putin abruptly canceled a widely advertised appearance at an anti-drug rock concert in St. Petersburg after a group on Russia's leading social media site, VKontakte, called for heckling the prime minister. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, a top candidate for the ruling United Russia party, attended in Putin's stead—and was, in fact, heckled by activists who chanted anti-United Russia slogans, echoed by many young people in the audience.
The perception of Putin's vulnerability may be spilling over into Russia's usually lifeless official politics. On November 23, when Putin visited the Russian parliament, the Duma, to thank its members for "working together over the past four years," many MPs—members of the Communist Party and of the left-leaning Fair Russia faction—did not rise to greet him.
What does it all mean? Some dissident Russian bloggers and commentators quickly proclaimed the Olimpiysky incident to be the beginning of the end for the authoritarian regime identified with Putin. "After the boos and the shout, 'Go away,' the end of Putinism may be very near or very far; it is pointless to speculate about the timing," political satirist Victor Shenderovich wrote in the online magazine EJ.ru. "But the point of no return has been passed—that's a fact. Everyone's had it up to here with the 'savior of the nation.'"
Such analysis may be part wishful thinking. Other observers, such as journalist Nikolai Troitsky and Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, believe that the boos were less a political protest than an "apolitical" one: Russians are fed up with politicians and politics of all stripes, particularly with politicians exploiting sports and entertainment to enhance their image. Troitsky notes that any opposition leader who tried to intrude on a sports event would have been booed as well. Still, he adds, in the past "the masses made an exception for Putin" in their general apathy and mistrust toward all things political; not anymore. Moreover, Putin's visibility means that "people are more fed up with him than with anyone else, and in the next six years he'll run into this repeatedly."
This disgust has been undoubtedly exacerbated by the "trading places" farce in which Putin skirted the constitutional ban on a third (consecutive) presidential term in 2008 by making Dmitry Medvedev his appointed successor/placeholder and staying on as prime minister. The announcement that Medvedev would step aside next year to make way for Putin's return to the presidency made the farce all the more obvious, and Putin all the more obnoxious.
Perhaps most startlingly, a poll released on November 25 by the Levada Center, Russia's most respected polling company, found that only 31 percent of Russians said they would vote for Putin if the presidential election were held right now. This is not quite the writing on the wall: most respondents said that they had no idea for whom they would vote or that they wouldn't vote at all. Seven percent said they would vote Medvedev; roughly as many favored the Communist candidate.
Unless a capable and charismatic opposition leader steps into this vacuum, Putin is certain to win. But he may also find out the truth of the old saying that one cannot step into the same river twice. Chances are, President Putin will not return as a national hero but as an obnoxious politician who has overstayed his welcome. And this will likely affect his ability to wield power effectively—and perhaps create opportunities for a viable opposition leader to emerge in the next few years.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at RealClearPolitics, where this article originally appeared.