Vladimir Putin emerged from a yellow Lada sports car in the Siberian city of Chita yesterday, after driving more than 1930km to complete a road trip across Russia’s Far Eastern regions.
Fitting in to what appears to be a growing PR campaign to boost his image ahead of a potential return to the Kremlin in 2012, the Russian Prime Minister set off on the journey last week, sporting a pair of dark glasses and a cream polo shirt.
Putin had a small fridge of drinks in the boot and a Beatles CD to keep him company – as well as dozens of journalists, broadcasting the trip to Russians across the country.
In one interview, given while at the wheel of the Lada to the Kommersant newspaper, Putin admitted he was contemplating a return to the Russian presidency in 2012. He also said that pro-democracy protesters deserved to be “beaten around the head with truncheons”.
Putin was testing out a highway that has been in construction for decades and is the last link in a paved road that connects Moscow and Vladivostok, several thousand kilometres and seven time zones apart. He was also playing up to his “man of the people” image, in a month that has seen a remarkable flurry of televised stunts, even by his standards.
During the fires that ravaged European Russia earlier this month, he was pictured co-piloting a plane that dropped water on a burning forest (“Did I hit it?” he was recorded asking the pilot. “Yes, a direct hit!” was the response).
Then last week he added to his animal-related escapades, which have featured tigers, polar bears and leopards, when he boarded a dinghy off the Kamchatka Peninsula and fired darts from a crossbow to collect skin samples from a grey whale.
Putin described the car journey as “the first break I’ve had for a decade or so”, but even if he really did enjoy speeding through the Siberian landscapes, there was no doubt the trip was as carefully choreographed. The television cameras were never far away, and any exchanges he had with ordinary Siberians along the way were filmed for the evening news bulletins.
During the trip, he spoke to Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist with Kommersant who is allowed more free reign for criticism and sarcasm in Putin’s direction than most other Russian reporters.
“You understand that you have made mistakes, you just don’t want to admit it,” remarked Kolesnikov to Putin after the Prime Minister had said that during his whole decade in power he could not think of a single mistake he had made. “Maybe we could have done some things more carefully, effectively, wisely …” said Putin, but reiterated that no serious mistakes had been made.
Putin has been widely tipped for a return to the Kremlin, and with presidential terms extended to six years, Putin could remain in power until 2024. He has said he will sit down with President Dmitry Medvedev and decide which of them will run in 2012. In the current Russian political climate, non-Kremlin candidates would not stand a chance.
In yesterday’s interview, Putin admitted that the 2012 elections are on his mind. “It interests me like … I wanted to say like everyone, but, in fact, more than everyone else. But I don’t want to make a fetish out of it.”
The Prime Minister also said those who attend unauthorised protests deserve to be beaten by police.
“You have to receive permission from the local authorities. If you get it, go and demonstrate. If you don’t, you have no right to. If you go anyway, you’ll get beaten around the head with a truncheon. And that’s it.”
He insisted that the same thing happens in London if people try to protest without permission and “nobody complains”.
The Russian Prime Minister is “dishonest, ignorant and evil”, wrote Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was arrested for taking part in such a protest earlier this month, on his blog in response to Putin’s comments.
“It’s clear that the call to beat your own people, moreover those who are unarmed and not showing any resistance, is a crime,” he wrote. Nemtsov is part of the umbrella opposition movement Solidarity, which organises protests on the last day of every month with 31 days, in reference to Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which gives the right to demonstrate.
Local authorities frequently block opposition-minded protests on technicalities, or claim that particular locations are not available due to clashes with other events – usually hastily arranged rallies organised by Kremlin-backed youth groups.
Last month, Moscow authorities announced that Triumfalnaya Square, the main Moscow venue for the Article 31 protests, is to be closed off for up to two years to construct an underground parking facility, and the square has been surrounded by metal fencing. However, organisers planned to rally at the edges of the square last night. A protest in London, outside the Russian Embassy, was also planned last night.
Putin’s choice of car for the journey was meant to give a boost to Russia’s struggling domestic car industry.
However, some Russian media reported that about 400km into the journey, the car started making a screeching noise and was quickly replaced with another, identical, yellow Lada.
– Prophecy News Watch