Vladimir Putin, the three-term president and former KGB lieutenant colonel who has dominated Russian politics for two decades, is itching to press the reset button. But not of the diplomatic sort that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton literally presented to Russia at the start of the Obama presidency. Rather, he seeks to recalibrate his political image inside his own turf.
Since disputed 2011 parliamentary elections — his political rivals claimed fraud — that spurred the biggest opposition protests of his tenure, Putin has been clamping down sharply on dissenters. This only intensified after he won re-election in March, 2012. But with his United Russia party battered by the attendant scrutiny of its human rights record and financial scandals involving some of its top leaders who held undeclared property in the United States, Putin’s embrace of a nascent political movement called the People’s Front is best understood as an acknowledgment of a changed landscape. Even if polls show his approval ratings remain high and that few Russians can envision a genuine challenge to his rule, Putin would prefer to see his numbers curve toward the stratosphere.
With parliamentary elections expected in 2016 (and presidential elections two years later), Putin might as well begin the process of retooling his political apparatus now. To that end, he held an American-style talk show and rally with early backers of the new group, promising to stay attentive to their concerns. He also made an early show of support by creating the title “Hero of Labour of the Russian Federation,” an homage to a Soviet decoration that reflects the delicate tightrope he walks between modern capitalist leader and old-line KGB holdover with mixed feelings about the democratic process. But political observers think this is more than just a one-time PR event, and that the People’s Front, even if it remains for the time being something less formal than a political party, is Putin’s way of making up some of the ground he’s lost in public opinion over the years, and could end up serving as a vehicle for his own future on the ballot.
The kinds of populist promises made at the event — establishing caps on severance pay for CEOs and placing more of an emphasis on orphans and education — serve as a warm, fuzzy counterweight to the image Westerners and Russian dissidents have settled on: Putin as hotheaded strongman. And that he might revel in a “grassroots” movement that is apparently springing up around him simultaneously (more likely a bit of astro-turfing is involved) is all the better for the generous local media coverage it engenders.
Putin has also just hired a new top cop on the anti-dissenter beat, meaning prominent opposition figures will continue to face (often absurd) criminal charges and harassment from the legal system. Which makes the timing of his latest political project all the more telling: he would love to turn the page now that his enemies are weakened and often consigned to the Internet, where late last year they held online elections. Putin, meanwhile, can slowly build toward his next act: another term as president — or whatever else he’s in the mood for.