01.13.12

Oops! Putin Creates an Online Forum for Detractors—Then Censors It

What started as a website to promote his run for presidency in hours became a free-for-all for negative commentary. Then someone on the Russian Prime Minister’s staff “fixed” it.

Yesterday Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, launched a Web site in advance of his run for president. Within a few hours, one of the most popular comments left on the site was, “Please leave politics.” Created to boost support, the site instead became a forum for gripes. Putin, by his own admission, is not Internet savvy; he publicly admits that he never uses it. Perhaps he didn’t even read the comments section.

But someone did. By 1:45pm, nearly all of the website’s users suggested politely that the PM make a quiet exit. “I have a wish. I suggest you withdraw your candidacy from the presidential bid,” stated one user. “Here is one kind request: Please leave politics. I understand that power is like a drug, but that would be a dignified action,” said another. One post urged: “Retire. We will understand you, we will not die. We are tired of tolerating you for 12 years and for just as long more. In case of your victory, many of my friends think they would leave Russia.”

Not surprisingly, some of the most negative comments vanished from the website by 7p.m. Robert Schlegel, a member of the Duma Committee on information policy, saw nothing strange about the censorship by the website’s administrators. “I see nothing wrong with cleaning up that website. Technically it’s very easy to arrange 100,000 negative comments by sending them from the same IP address,” Schlegel said. “I would not judge the public opinion by them; it would be the same as thinking that the entire country agrees with the protesters that came out to Moscow’s streets.”

By the evening, some of the web site’s users had pressed a request demanding that Putin participate in presidential debates. Last month, Putin publicly answered a phone call by a young Russian who believed that such discourse would be a good idea. “If you think so, then you should participate in them,” Putin, who doesn’t take criticism easily, told the caller. Visiting Denmark last April, he looked disturbed when a Danish correspondent asked him why, despite articles in foreign media noting his dwindling popularity, he still preferred to stay in power.

One post urged: “Retire. We will understand you, we will not die. We are tired of tolerating you for 12 years. In case of your victory, many of my friends think they would leave Russia.”

Putin responded, “Future candidates of the Russian Federation will not need any support from abroad; the future Russian presidential candidates [will] need the support of the Russian people.” Since that spring day, even home support has declined. The approval rating of Vladimir Putin dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade, from 71% in 2009, down to 48% in December 2011. And last November, a crowd publicly booed Putin for the first time, when he came out to a wrestling ring to congratulate a Russian sportsman. The stadium audience exploded as soon as Putin took the microphone to speak. It was also the first time a negative public reaction was shown on state television. The clip received 500,000 views on YouTube the day it posted.

Later in the day, an Internet blogger and an opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, announced “the end of Putin’s era” on his website. A week later, about 7,000 protesters in Moscow chanted: “Putin, you better go yourself!” outside Chisty Prudi metro station; two weeks later, that number had swelled to 100,000. “Putin, leave!” and “Russia Without Putin!” they shouted. Russians had complained online; now they were on the streets.

The headline for Putin’s campaign website quotes his own words: “If I take something up, I make sure I see it through to its logical end or, as a minimum, produce the maximum possible effect.”

It was clear that the message did not promise an exit anytime soon.