We haven't heard much about the "party of swindlers and thieves" for some time now. There aren't so many exposes of officials' luxury villas in the south of France. And, by the way, when was the last time you read a snarky blog post about Russian President Vladimir Putin's Botox habit? But we sure are hearing a lot about "national traitors" and "fascists" bent on undermining Russia's restored greatness. And the early 20th-century Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera—or at least a grotesque caricature of him—has made a comeback as a national boogeyman.
In the space of a few months, Putin has managed to change the conversation. The Kremlin no longer looks like it is out of ideas and running out of time. Putin's approval rating is at 83 percent. Even the ruling United Russia party—you know, the one made up of all those swindlers and thieves—is polling at 60 percent.
And the Kremlin's critics have been effectively silenced. With the world's eyes on the Ukraine crisis, an ongoing crackdown on NGOs in Russia intensified this week with prosecutors conducting raids on organizations in Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod. Independent media is being muzzled, bloggers are being stifled, and officials are dreaming up measures to squash dissent that make the crackdown of 2012-13 look almost quaint. "The Ukrainian revolution is becoming the prelude to a Russian counterrevolution," political commentator and onetime Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky wrote recently.
And if you believe the polls, the public—including that vaunted "creative class" that not long ago was clamoring for more pluralism and for a "Russia Without Putin"—appears to be on board. Writing this week in The Moscow Times, opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov argues that Putin is in the process of forging a new "social contract" with the Russian people.
"His first social contract in the early and mid-2000s was based on the principle that most Russians would accept the government's restrictions on personal freedoms and democracy as long as they received higher standards of living," Ryzhkov wrote. "Now, judging by the results of a recent Levada Center poll, most Russians have shifted their focus to another value: returning Russia to its great-power status. It seems that the ruling regime has found its political 'second wind' and if this wind continues to blow for the next couple of years, Putin's re-election in the 2018 presidential race is all but a given." That is, assuming there is even an election in 2018.
Anybody remember Alexei Navalny? Not long ago, the anti-corruption blogger, opposition leader, and all-around gadfly seemed to be setting the agenda and riding a cresting wave of discontent with the regime. Now he's virtually invisible. The man who coined, branded, and marketed the "swindlers and thieves" label is languishing under house arrest. And to add insult to injury, it is now forbidden for third parties to repost his blogs.
"It is absolutely clear to me that it is just one more attempt to drive me into a corner," Navalny told reporters in April after a Moscow court found him guilty of slander. Yes it is. And it appears to be working. Navalny's blog remains active as ever—but it isn't driving the conversation like it once did. Not even close.