MOSCOW (Reuters) - Has Vladimir Putin lost his touch?
The boos and whistles that greeted the Russian prime minister when he stepped into the ring and took the microphone at a martial arts event in Moscow on Sunday may have given him a shock.
They come amid a sense of fatigue with Putin in the runup to a March presidential election which is almost certain to give him at least six more years as Kremlin leader.
In video footage posted on the Internet, fans can be heard shouting and whistling as Putin is handed the microphone in the ring of Olympiysky Stadium.
Allowing just a blink of bewilderment as he peers around the stadium, Putin presses on to hail fighter Fyodor Yemelyanenko’s victory over an American rival. One fan screams “leave” as Putin speaks.
Opinion polls show the former KGB spy is still Russia’s most popular politician, and organisers said in a statement they did not believe he was the target of the jeers. If he was, he has never been heckled by so many.
“Even though it is clear that a part of the audience was cheering, a significant part was no doubt jeering Putin,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator for Kommersant FM radio.
“We have never seen anything like this on this scale before. It is a symptom that some in Russian society are tired of Putin’s image.”
Russian blogger Alexei Navalny said it was the end of an era in which there had been a taboo on voicing or broadcasting unrehearsed public discontent with Russia’s paramount leader.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the booing and whistles were aimed at American fighter Jeff Monson who was carried out of the ring with a broken leg at the same time as Putin started his speech.
“I was there and I saw it,” Peskov told a conference call with journalists. He said the booing stopped when Monson disappeared from sight, allowing Putin to finish his speech uninterrupted.
Polls show Putin’s ruling party is likely to win a parliamentary election on Dec. 4 and that he is almost certain to win the March presidential election. Many Russians still admire the man who first became president in 2000.
“What do I think of Putin? Only the best, and nothing has changed since the announcement of his running for presidency,” said Yelena, a 24-year-old law student in Moscow.
But the outburst at the Olympiysky Stadium seems to reflect a weariness among voters with the macho image of a leader who has already ruled Russia for almost 12 years.
Russia’s biggest independent pollster published a poll this month showing Putin’s approval rating had fallen to 61 percent, the lowest since August 2000, when he was dogged by the botched reaction to a naval disaster that killed all 118 crewmen aboard the submarine Kursk.
Putin remains popular, but not as popular as before.
“At the beginning of his presidency I had illusions, I had euphoria, but it disappeared very quickly,” said Olga, a 52-year-old journalist.
“I think we are witnessing the thinning of Putin’s Teflon,” Eggert said.
“The people who go to watch mixed martial arts are not the iPad brigade: they are the sort of masculine audience who previously liked Putin and so what happened at the stadium is a very serious signal to Putin and his circle.”
Disenchantment with Putin is extremely worrying for the Kremlin’s political managers: Putin’s self-portrayal as the anchor of Russian stability depends on his popularity.
It also makes Putin harder to present to the Russian public because it suggests his tough-guy image does not strike the same chord as 12 years ago, when he vowed to end the chaos which had followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
A video of Putin's speech here
received more than 530,000 clicks.
State news agency RIA said state television had edited out the jeering. The head of Olympiysky Stadium, Mikhail Moskalyov, also said fans had been jeering U.S. fighter Jeff Monson.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Gleb Bryanski; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Roche