Mass anti-government protests in Moscow are no reason to suspend the venerable traditions of Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine. Ever since he first won the presidency in 2000, Putin has told voters that his job is to lead the “fight for Russia” against enemies, both foreign and domestic. To underscore this immutable message, it is an established custom to foil an attempt on Putin's life not long before the vote.
In early 2000, when Putin was preparing for his first election as acting president, terrorists were purportedly stopped from assassinating him at the Feb. 24 funeral of former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. In 2004, before the second election, the propaganda machine skipped a beat, possibly because the vote was largely uncontested. In 2008, with Putin preparing temporarily to cede power to Dmitry Medvedev, everything was back on track: It was announced that right around the March election, a sharpshooter from Tajikistan, Shakhvelad Osmanov, intended to eliminate both Putin and Medvedev with a shot from an apartment window as they walked past St. Basil's Cathedral to the Kremlin. Later, however, sources within Russian special services linked Osmanov's alleged preparations to a gangland plot unrelated to Putin or politics.
The last story alone was enough for prominent liberal politician Vladimir Milov to dismiss the current foiled assassination report as “unworthy of comment” in his microblog. Others saw it as eminently discussable, though few bought the official story.
On Feb. 27, Channel One, government-controlled like all of Russia's major free-to-air TV stations, reported that the Ukrainian Security Service, in collaboration with its Russian counterparts, had arrested two men in the Black Sea port town of Odessa after a homemade bomb accidentally exploded in a downtown apartment, killing the alleged terrorists' associate. One of the men, Adam Osmayev, a native of Chechnya, calmly told his interrogators that the three had been working on a bomb meant to blow up Putin's car as the prime minister's motorcade sped down a Moscow street. According to security officers, Osmayev and his fellow plotters had been studying videos of the motorcade to see how Putin's Mercedes limousine could be approached. If necessary, one of them -- the one who died in the explosion -- was prepared to act as a suicide bomber. Channel One said the plot had been instigated by Doku Umarov, a Chechen separatist leader now living in London.
Bloggers reacted to the news with universal derision. Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, whom many see as the most plausible opposition candidate for the next election cycle, posted in his blog: “This week, expect more Channel One reports: Putin pulls an old lady out of a burning building; a kitten up a tree refuses to come down despite firefighters' entreaties, but jumps trustingly into the prime minister's arms; pedophile drug addicts planning all sorts of nastiness against the Kremlin on orders from Tbilisi, Georgia."
In Ukraine, local politicians refused to suspend disbelief, even though the Security Service officially confirmed the Channel One report. Taras Chornovil, deputy head of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, commented: “For those who know anything about security matters, it would be ridiculous even to theorize about such an assassination attack. It would be like talking about flying to the moon.” Chornovil suggested that Russian special services had alerted their Ukrainian colleagues to a known terrorist's whereabouts in Odessa, and the Ukrainians in return agreed to back up the assassination plot story to prop up Putin in the March 4 presidential election.
This was only guesswork on Chornovil's part, but it could ring true to Ukrainians, who remember well the extraordinary events that unfolded in Odessa in October 2011. In a mini-war watched by the entire city, local police pounded a small hotel with grenade launchers in their efforts to neutralize an ethnic Chechen hitman who had recently murdered two cops. Odessa is a busy port receiving heavy traffic from Turkey and the Caucasus, where Chechen separatist fighters hide out from Russian pursuers, and the city has a notoriously corrupt police force. The Ukrainian special services might have greatly appreciated Russian help in catching more terrorists before they resorted to urban warfare.
From a propaganda standpoint, there is a certain symbolism in the Ukrainian angle. On the one hand, Ukraine maintains neighborly relations with Georgia, Russia's arch enemy in the ex-Soviet realm, so its role as a base for terrorists fits well with the Kremlin's world view. On the other hand, Kiev's help in unraveling a Chechen plot against Putin serves as proof of inseverable blood ties between Russians and Ukrainians.
Putin used the story to embellish the macho image that has served him so well in previous elections. “I have lived with this kind of thing since 1999”, Putin said during a trip to the Southern Russian city of Astrakhan on Feb. 28. “There's no reason to be scared" of terrorists. "Let them be scared of us.” The premier's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called the opposition's disbelieving reactions to the assassination story “sacrilegious.”
Sunday, Feb. 26, saw a renewed outpouring of protest in the Russian capital: Tens of thousands of people wearing white ribbons lined the Garden Ring, circling downtown Moscow, to call for Putin's resignation and a fair election. But most Russians are not protesting, and Putin's message is meant for that silent majority. According to political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, once a trusted Kremlin adviser but now seemingly out of favor with Putin, “a failed assassination attempt before an election is always a gift for the candidate in question.”
Putin can hardly do more to disappoint those who wear the white of the “Snow Revolution.” But there are still plenty of people on whom he can work his old tricks.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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