Of Sex and Politics in Russia: World View

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(Corrects title of Andrew Skehan in third paragraph.)

By Jeffrey Tayler

Would you buy a burger from a pigtailed pair of Russian Lolitas? That seems to be the question the fast-food franchise Wendy’s implicitly put to diners at the opening of its first standalone restaurant in Moscow.

The Moscow Times’ Khristina Narizhnaya reported that:

The Wendy's models in trademark pigtails who greeted reporters . . . didn't resemble your traditional Wendy girls.

Instead of the wholesome freckle-faced redhead in old-fashioned pantaloons, these long-legged women wore short dresses, bright red-striped stockings and stilettos.

Notions of political correctness in Russia differ decidedly from those in the West. Andrew Skehan, senior vice president of Wendy’s/Arby's Group, was not amused, as Narizhnaya explained after a phone call to the nonplussed exec: “He had not,” she wrote, “been aware of franchisee Wenrus Restaurant Group's decision to sex up the chain's icon. Wendy was, after all, the daughter of the chain's late founder and chief executive, Dave Thomas.”

* * *

Maneuverings are well under way for Russia’s presidential elections, scheduled for March 2012. But President Dmitry Medvedev had to bust a move of a non-political kind during a visit to Mirny, a settlement near Kazan, some five hundred miles east of Moscow, according to Kazan-Times.ru . Medvedev, himself behind the wheel of a glistening black station wagon, drove up to a crowd gathered to greet him. “The car came to a halt by people being held back by the police,” declared Kazan-Times.ru, “but when Medvedev tried to get out, the [car] rolled on toward the crowd. Noticing this, his security detail immediately attempted to stop the car by hand.” But as the amateur video posted on Ekho Moskvy shows, Medvedev himself then intervened and managed to avert disaster, yanking the gearshift into park.

The crowd cheered his deftness. But reactions have been mixed to another, less agile, demarche he made last week. RIA Novosti reported his offer of the speaker’s job at the Federation Council to Valentina Matviyenko, the much-maligned governor of Saint Petersburg. Alexandra Odynova of The Moscow Times explained the likely motive:

Politicians and analysts have said the Kremlin wants to replace the increasingly unpopular governor ahead of State Duma elections in December, and the speaker appointment would allow her to save face. While the speaker's post would leave Matviyenko second in line for the presidency, the governor's office wields more influence.

Matviyenko is a crony of both Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; it remains unclear whether the job switch (inherently controversial, given the hidebound sexism still regnant in Russian political milieux) will benefit one potential presidential candidate more than the other. In job-approval ratings, the prestigious polling agency Levada Center continues to put Putin (69 percent) just ahead of Medvedev (66 percent), a drop from the peak 80-77 percent ratings the dynamic diarchy scored last May.

Putin is proceeding with his usual rounds of photo-ops out in Everyman’s Russia, demonstrating his proximity to farmers and working-class folk. Mk.ru covered his recent jaunt south to the Rostov region, where he strode through barley fields, voiced concern about the possible effects Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization might have on the homeland’s agriculture, and pledged to preserve Russia’s interests in negotiations: “We won’t give up anything,” he announced. Moreover, even when it comes to ice cream, Putin remains a patriot: “I always check to see if the ice-cream is ours” – meaning Russian. “If it is, I eat it.”

And as the blog Tolkovatel’ (ttolk.ru) has shown , Putin’s popularity extends to unlikely quarters. The site introduces Russians to the oeuvre of Bela Doka a Hungarian photographer. Doka snapped curious shots of Putin’s star-struck (and, apparently, largely female) fans. One example: a teenage girl, clad in a t-shirt emblazoned with two Putin portraits, lounges in bed gazing at Putin’s image embossed on a flag at her side.

But does Putinmania really reign across a country spanning eleven time zones? Not entirely. Aleksey Navalny, the prominent anti-corruption crusader, recently posted an open letter to Yury Chaika, Russia’s Prosecutor General, calling for the abolition of the All-Russian People’s Front, a movement formed to support the pro-Putin party United Russia ahead of parliamentary elections planned for December. Navalny argues, among other things, that Putin’s staff violated 1997 legislation concerning “non-commercial organizations,” using federal funds for “unofficial” administrative purposes. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, informed Ekho Moskvy that “it’s . . . too early to enter into a discussion” about Navalny’s charges. But, he added, “If the Prosecutor General agrees to deal with [the charges], then of course all the questions [Navalny raises] will be adequately answered.”

Perhaps the loudest protest heard against pre-election legal shenanigans comes from opposition figure (and former State Duma deputy) Vladimir Ryzhkov, a co-chairman of the liberal Party of the People’s Freedom. Last week the Ministry of Justice refused to register the party, citing alleged violations that would reduce its rolls by eighty-two members, “still . . . well over the 45,000 members required by law,” Ryzhkov wrote in The Moscow Times. Ryzhkov won a suit in the European Court of Justice against the Russian government over the Russian Supreme Court’s banning of another opposition party in 2007. Ryzhkov ended his editorial with a damning peroration:

The motive behind the Justice Ministry decision is obvious — to remove an opposition party that the Kremlin fears months before elections. Putin and his “party of thieves and crooks” — along with its off-shoot, the All-Russia People’s Front . . . is preparing once again for massive election rigging in parliamentary and presidential elections.

The storm clouds are gathering. The year ahead will no doubt test the mettle of all the actors on Russia’s increasingly tense, ever-shifting political scene.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including Murderers in Mausoleums -- Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: taylerjeffrey@yahoo.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net

-0- Jul/05/2011 16:43 GMT