Putin’s Comedy Act Wins Russia No Friends

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts at comedy have never been particularly endearing. Lately, they’ve been bad enough to turn the country into a pariah state.

This week, Putin embarked on a European image offensive against a background of creeping repression at home, as government agencies started implementing a law requiring nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign money to register as “foreign agents.” Amnesty International and 42 other organizations received visits from law-enforcement officials. One group -- Golos, known for its efforts to expose electoral fraud -- was charged with violating the law.

The crackdown, which Golos head Grigory Melkonyants called a “political contract hit,” prompted the aging rocker Mark Knopfler, founder of the group Dire Straits and an Amnesty International supporter, to cancel upcoming concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“I have always loved playing in Russia and have great affection for the country and the people,” Knopfler announced on his fan site. “I hope the current climate will change soon.”

Knopfler’s decision elicited a mixed reaction. “Thank you for the support of human rights organizations,” anti-Putin activist Oleg Kozyrev commented on Knopfler’s site. “Actions like this are very important to us here.” Russian crooner Iosif Kobzon, who has managed to remain friendly with government officials since Leonid Brezhnev’s time, was enraged. “Who the hell is he? It would mean something if, say, Elton John canceled his shows,” he said. “I have never canceled anything in protest and I don’t recommend that others do it.”

Putin might have done well to follow Knopfler’s example and cancel his own tour. In Hanover, as Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel inspected the Volkswagen display at the fair, a group of women from the Ukrainian action group Femen broke through the security cordon and took off their clothes, revealing anti-Putin slogans. Presidential bodyguards quickly pulled them away.

Russian observers found the setup in Hanover highly suspicious: Putin’s security at home and abroad is usually so tight that there is no way to get so close to him. “I know from experience how the president’s personal bodyguard works,” photographer and blogger Rustem Adagamov wrote on Facebook. “I suspect they were allowed to do this and the situation was totally under control.”

Putin milked the incident for all it was worth. “I liked it,” he said in Hanover, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “Thank the Ukrainian girls for helping promote the fair... I didn’t really hear what they were yelling because the security guards were so tough. Those big guys manhandling the girls. I think this is wrong, they could have been more gentle.”

Later in Amsterdam, Putin changed his position. “I had not had breakfast that morning,” he told reporters. “If they had showed me a sausage, that would have made me happy, but those delights they demonstrated did not.” He added: “Thank God gays did not undress.”

Putin might have been trying to ease the international tension surrounding a bill making its way through the Russian parliament that would ban “homosexual propaganda,” but his various remarks during the trip only managed to alienate the gay community. “We need to achieve a consensus with that community and agree to work together,” he said. “But you will agree that, after all, same-sex marriages do not produce children.” He went on to explain that in the Russian provinces, the majority would never support gay marriages, and in places such as Chechnya “there would be casualties” if they were allowed.

Putin’s remarks about the non-governmental organizations were similarly snide. In an interview with ARD television before his trip, he said that in the last four months, 650 Russian nongovernmental organizations had received almost $1 billion in foreign funding -- a number Russian activists found absurdly high. “This money, no small amount, could be used to help problem countries such as Cyprus,” the Russian leader said. “Then there would be no need to rip off the unfortunate depositors.”

Putin’s malicious sense of humor is well known to Russians and many foreign journalists. At home, it has its fans. But at a time when a long list of celebrities such as Knopfler and Madonna are condemning Putin’s repressive policies, his traveling comedy show hardly helps Russia clean up its international reputation. The only question is whether he is simply unaware of his boorishness, or he is doing it on purpose.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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