Russian backlash over Putin booing denial

By Daniel Sandford
BBC News, Moscow

media captionAmateur video appeared to show the audience booing as Vladimir Putin started to speak

Sometimes key moments in politics happen in the strangest of places and at unexpected times. Some Russia analysts are now asking whether a martial arts fight in Moscow's Olimpisky Arena last Sunday night was one of those moments.

The event was a mixed martial arts fight between Russia's Fedor Emelianenko and America's Jeff "The Snowman" Monson.

It turned out the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in the crowd.

He is almost certain to return to the presidency in the elections in March, after his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, agreed not to stand in order to give him a free run.

Emelianenko won the fight and Vladimir Putin climbed into the ring to congratulate him, and that was when the unthinkable happened.

The crowd booed the previously untouchable prime minister as he started to speak, and continued to boo him except when he was praising Emilianenko.

The whole thing was broadcast live on the state-owned television channel Rossiya 2.

In all subsequent replays of the fight, and edited news broadcasts, the booing was cut out but the genie was out of the bottle.

A clip from Rossiya 2's live broadcast appeared on YouTube and has been viewed 2.5m times.

A similar clip filmed by someone in the crowd, in which the booing is even more prominent, is also very popular.

There were attempts to restrict the damage. It was suggested that the martial arts supporters had, in fact, been booing the American loser Monson, and this explanation was repeated in many Russian newspapers.

Outraged fans

And that is where the story gets really interesting because some Russians, outraged at what they saw as a suggestion that they had shown disrespect to an honourable loser, have bombarded Monson's Facebook Wall with supportive messages, many of them in English, and many of them attacking Vladimir Putin.

Denis Kir from Mezhdurechensk wrote: "You are great! Putin is just stupid and we booed Putin."

Tanya Kuu from Kolomna added: "People in Russia don't respect Putin's mode now."

Artem Dzyuba from Moscow said: "It's clearly heard the crowd was outraged by the prime minister.

"His corrupted government, muppet courts, punishers in police clothes, pocket electoral commissions and people of his clan at all the most important and profitable chairs - it all drives us crazy!"

Paul Protsenko, a student in Yaroslavl, declared that the 21st of November had been the "greatest date for our country because Putin the first time was whistled and shamed!", adding "Russia must be free".

Valentin Dombrovsky mentioned Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov: "Come and tell Mr Peskov that he is wrong, Jeff. And you may punch him once or twice for his mean lies."

One user posted that it was a "Facebook flashmob".

Something stirring?

Opposition demonstrations in Russia can usually muster only a few hundred diehard supporters.

Much of the anti-government political debate takes place online, on Livejournal, Facebook and the Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.

But the attempt to suggest that the crowd had booed a respected sporting opponent rather than the prime minister clearly touched a chord with thousands of ordinary people.

The messages left by Russians on Monson's Facebook Wall now number in the thousands. They do not all criticise Vladimir Putin, but none of them praise him.

Something could be stirring in Russian politics, but probably too late to change the outcome of next year's presidential election.

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