Politics & Policy

Is Putin popular? &c.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg, January 18, 2018. (Anatoly Maltsev/Pool/Reuters)
Russia, France, spring training, and more

With clockwork regularity, we are told that Putin is popular in Russia. Wildly popular. We are told this by Westerners, usually. And we’ve heard a special load of it in recent days because Russia has an election coming up. Or rather, “election.”

The main opposition leader is not available to run. He — Boris Nemtsov — was murdered within sight of the Kremlin three years ago. Today’s main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is not available to run either. He’s not dead yet. He has suffered various physical attacks, but he’s still above ground. He is simply barred from running.

Does Putin have an opponent? Yes, a chick named Ksenia Sobchak, a reality-TV star known as “the Paris Hilton of Russia.” A reality-TV star made it to the top here in America. But Ksenia is not much of a threat to Putin. She makes me think of “Umm Khalil,” the grandmother who was selected to run against Arafat in the PA some years ago.

Anyway, everyone says how popular Putin is. Often, they cite poll numbers. One who has done this is Donald Trump. Running for president, he said,

“I’ve always felt, you know, fine about Putin. I think that he is a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader, he’s represented his country — that’s the way the country is being represented. He’s actually got popularity within his country. They respect him as a leader, certainly over the last couple of years they’ve respected him as the leader. I think he’s up in the 80s, which is, you know — you see where Obama’s in the 30s and low 40s, and, you know, he’s up in the 80s.”

Uh-huh. Here is what Russians tell me: Say that a stranger calls you up or comes to your door and says, “What do you think of Putin?” You know that critics have been arrested, jailed, tortured, murdered. “Disappeared.” How do you think you answer?

Another point — from another president, George W. Bush. In an interview with me two years ago, he brought up Putin (unprompted) in a discussion of strongmen and dictators: “People say, ‘He’s the most popular guy in Russia.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’d be popular too if I owned NBC,’” and the other networks.

Again, I quote Russians: Putin censors the media, monopolizes the media. He jails or otherwise silences his critics. He does not allow genuine opposition. He does not allow free and fair elections.

Is this the behavior of a leader confident of his popularity?

For decades, people told me that Fidel Castro was popular in Cuba. Strangely enough, he never tested the proposition with genuine elections. I think there was a reason for that. I also suspect that Vladimir Putin knows better than we in the West: He probably knows that he’s not as popular as we say he is.

No dummy, he.

Let me quote Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, now a human-rights champion, in exile: “Allow dissent & free media for 6 months in Russia and see what happens. Putin would never risk it because he’s terrified of his own people and the truth, like every dictator.”

Yes.

• So, the KGB — FSB, whatever — has performed its latest poisonings in Britain. I will again quote Kasparov: “The leaders of the free world keep lowering their standards and authoritarians keep taking more territory. Eventually people wake up and ask why Putin murders in the UK or hacks in the US. Why wouldn’t he? You didn’t stop him before.”

Yes. Kasparov likes to say, “People ask about dictators, ‘Why?’ But dictators themselves ask, ‘Why not?’” I think of an old French expression, taught to me by David Pryce-Jones: “L’appétit vient en mangeant.” Appetite comes from eating. You bite something off — Crimea, let’s say — you want more.

• Check out this headline from the Telegraph: “Bill Browder, Putin’s No.1 enemy: ‘I live my life assuming they want to kill me.’” (Article here.) That’s quite a way to live. Why would Putin want to kill Bill Browder? Well, the Russian authorities killed Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. They tortured him to death over the course of a year. Since then, Browder has campaigned for “Magnitsky acts,” which impose sanctions on human-rights abusers in Russia. This hits Putin & Co. where it hurts: in their pocketbooks.

Hence, the desire to see Bill dead.

In January, I wrote about him and his unusual family (here). I admire Bill no end. After it all went down in Russia, he could have turned his attention elsewhere, or simply put his feet up in London, counting his millions. Instead, he stuck his neck out, campaigning for justice. He put himself in the crosshairs of one of the most brazen and murderous governments on earth.

Would you have done that? Would I?

• Several times, I have mentioned an appearance by Nigel Farage in Alabama. He had come from Germany, where he campaigned for the AfD (a literal alt-Right, the Alternative für Deutschland). In Alabama, he campaigned for Roy Moore. He said that Moore’s election was “important for the whole global movement across the West that we have built up and we have fought for.”

In recent days, Steve Bannon has been with the National Front in France — the Le Pens & Co. “You’re part of a worldwide movement,” he said.

For nationalists, these guys can sound rather … “globalist,” can’t they?

Bannon also said, “History is on our side.” (For a news report, go here.) Ah, yes, the right side of history and the wrong side of history. You hear this from characters on both left and right. In 2011, I wrote an essay on the subject: “The Right Side of History: It’s bunk.” See what you make of it, when you have the time.

• Speaking of having the time: My Jaywalking podcast is an audio version of Impromptus, with added touches, chiefly music. To find a list of these puppies — the podcasts, the episodes — go here. If you’d like to subscribe, go to iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or TuneIn. If you’d like to write me — about anything — try jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

• Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, seems to me awake. (This is not to be confused with “woke.” A lot of us said “awake” before “woke” became au courant.) What I mean is this: Macron “pledged Wednesday to fight firmly against anti-Semitism wherever it surfaces, whether in the street or online, and to protect the nation’s Jews amid growing concerns about intolerance.”

I have quoted from this report.

Macron said, “We have understood, with horror, that anti-Semitism is still alive. And on this issue our response must be unforgiving. France would not be itself if Jewish citizens had to leave because they were afraid.”

This statement comes as a relief. An “unforgiving” response is just what is needed now.

• The Tigers have their spring training in Lakeland, Fla. (I’m talking about baseball, and I’m talking about the Detroit Tigers.) One day last week, they played the Yankees. I believe there were as many Yankee fans as Tiger fans.

Many Yankee fans wore Yankee jerseys, and many Tiger fans wore Tiger jerseys. A very popular name on Yankee jerseys: Jeter. A very popular name on Tiger jerseys: Verlander. Neither of those men plays for that team anymore.

(Derek Jeter is now retired and the CEO and part-owner of the Miami Marlins. Justin Verlander pitches for the Houston Astros, the world champions.)

• At the stadium — Joker Marchant Stadium, named after a onetime parks-and-rec director in Lakeland — the announcer announces the temperatures: back in Detroit, up in New York. It’s kind of nice to be in 75 degrees while hearing about cold and snow back home …

• The Toronto Blue Jays arrived in Joker Marchant. Lots of Canadians in the stadium. I mean, lots.

We sang the Canadian national anthem — and I do mean “we.” American patriot though I am, I sang along, for I love that anthem (and I love Canada, one of the great democracies). I also like the French version of the Canadian anthem. That was not sung in Joker Marchant.

As for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it was played on the steel drums. Yes, the steel drums. I had never heard that. And the guy was marvelous. Musical, virtuosic, and convincing.

Blow me down.

• The Blue Jays have a third baseman named Leblebijian — Jason Leblebijian. It’s good to see the Armenians rise in baseball.

• The Tigers have a third baseman named Ronny Rodriguez (really a utility infielder). Years ago, we had another third baseman named Rodriguez — Aurelio Rodriguez. He was beloved by all of us in Michigan.

• Behind me in the stadium, some women were talking. Discussion turned to their grandchildren — their grandbabies, particularly. “He’s big but he’s not fat,” said one grandmother, of one of the babies. “He’s compact. Heavy.” Another grandmother said, “All muscle.” The first grandmother replied, “All muscle and grins.”

Well, thanks for joining me, dear Impromptus-ites. May you be all muscle and grins.

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