The ways the world sees Vladimir Putin

Russian residents in Britain demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London in December 2011. Photo: Reuters

First published on 7th December 2011.

It was the sheer greenness and size of the gob of spit that convinced me.

I had just arrived in the Soviet Union, a few months after seeing the Berlin Wall fall. I was filled with the exhilaration of being in the land of Gorbachev, the man the West loved.

I was buying petrol when a middle aged Muscovite, recognising that I was a Westerner, came over to my car and without a word traced a finger portrait of Gorbachev,complete with birthmark, on my filthy windscreen. He then arched backwards and projected a thick spitball onto his drawing with as much disgust as he could muster. He looked at me with contempt and walked off.

It was then I realised that not everyone in the Soviet Union shared our rosy view of Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika. Many in Russia saw him then, and see him now, as the failing leader of a corrupt political system who lost their empire.

How interesting then, to see him on television in Moscow, not far from where the protesters were being arrested by the hundred, talking about the failures of leadership and a corrupt political system.

He was talking of course about a man he has little liking for: Vladimir Putin.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with the authorities of Ingushetia region in the provincial capital Magas. Credit: Reuters

Putin finds himself in an oddly similar position to that of Gorbachev more than twenty years ago. Russians are getting angrier at a political system that smacks of stitch-up, with opponents banned from politics or jailed.

The one-party-rule that defined Communism is being refined by Putin and re-branded, in a thoroughly twenty first century way, as "managed democracy". People are getting fed up with it.

If Putin wins the Presidency in March, as everyone expects he will, he'll rule for another twelve years until 2024, making him one of the longest serving Russian leaders in modern history.

Many young Russians are voting with their feet. Almost a million and a half of their countrymen have left in the last decade.

It is breeding a sense of stagnation in Russia. Young people say the future looks hopeless - they can't rise unless they know someone in power, or can bribe them to smooth their way into business or politics. Many are voting with their feet. Almost a million and a half Russians have left in the last decade.

So the protests this week will have landed like a gob of spit on Mr. Putin's teflon coated, carefully polished image. Untouchable and seemingly invincible for a decade, he has finally been hit by the real world of frustration, alienation and anger.

Russian voters are being asked to believe that 99.5% of Chechens - normally the most rebellious of Mother Russia's subjects - voted for the ruling United Russia Party of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev. Apparently 90% of all Russian mental health patients did too.

In the past such blatant fraud would never have been exposed. The entire media was state controlled; the power of its propaganda summed up by the name of its leading newspaper Pravda, The Truth.

Russian police detain a participant during an opposition protest in central Moscow December 5, 2011. Credit: Reuters

Not any more. Good citizens have new weapons: the cameraphone and the internet. Sift through YouTube, and you'll find dozens of videos, filmed by young activists, of electoral fraud as it happens. In some, electoral officials are caught red handed, filling in dozens of ballot papers for the ruling party.

United Russia won the election, with just under half the votes cast, but their share of the seats has slumped and their majority is now thin. And that's with the benefit of fraud.The protesters on the streets are calling Putin a thief.

It's not all bad news for the Hard Man of Russian politics. Putin remains the country's most popular politician. He is almost certain to assume the Presidency three months from now.There is no viable alternative.He has made sure of that.

Most Russians see Putin as a man to be respected who has restored their pride and their country's power.

Most Westerners see him as a man to be suspected,who has restored autocratic rule and his own power.

Like the diverging views of Gorbachev, our view of Russia's leader and theirs can be very different.