Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated May 1 by “restoring traditions,” as he said, from the Soviet era: a parade of trade unions and medals for “heroes of labor” awarded in the Kremlin.
In the first Labor Day march across Red Square since the Soviet Union collapsed, workers carried banners saying “I’m proud of my country,” “In Putin we trust,” and “We’re going to vacation in Crimea,” under the Kremlin walls.
The celebration drew about 100,000 people to the center of Moscow, Mikhail Shmakov, head of the Independent Labor Unions Federation, told reporters at the Kremlin.
Putin has sought to identify his 14-year rule with the resurgence of Russia as a world power. Even with sanctions from the U.S. and EU over Russia’s actions in Ukraine threatening the economy, much of the population sees Putin’s defiance as a sign of strength, reinforcing his image as the leader who restored order after the post-Communism chaos of the 1990s.
“Russians are not yet feeling the impact of the slowing economy,” Chris Weafer, a partner at Moscow-based Macro Advisory, said in e-mailed comments. “As far as most are concerned, the country is resurgent and has just won a major victory in Crimea. From their viewpoint, ‘the sun is shining, the oil price is high and Crimea has been recovered. Of course life is wonderful.’”
While Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine drove its relations with the U.S. and European Union to a post-Cold War low, the move has sent Putin’s popularity soaring to 82 percent in April, the highest since 2008, compared 65 percent in January, according to a poll by the independent Levada-Center published on its website.
The boost comes even as the economy slows and reliance increases on exports of oil and gas, the biggest contributors to budget revenue. Russia is “experiencing a recession,” the International Monetary Fund said yesterday, lowering its forecast for Russian growth this year to 0.2 percent growth in 2014, the second cut this month.
The U.S. and EU are threatening sanctions targeting Russia’s economy to push the government in Moscow to move troops away from the border with Ukraine amid worsening unrest in the neighboring country’s largely Russian-speaking east. Putin has called on Ukraine’s rulers to cede powers to its eastern regions and pledged to aid Russians across the post-Soviet landscape.
At home, Putin has sought to reassert his power after the biggest protests of his rule in the run-up to his 2012 election, cracking down on the opposition and calling for more control over the Internet. He has also spent billions of dollars on projects aimed at bolstering living standards and national pride, from social programs that strained the budget to an annual May 9 military parade in honor of victory in World War II to Russia’s first Winter Olympics, the most expensive ever.
“Wait until you see the military parade next week,” Weafer said. “Then you will see how resurgent Russian patriotism and confidence is.”
While Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin joined the throng on Red Square, Putin wasn’t shown overseeing the parade from atop Vladimir Lenin’s granite mausoleum by the Kremlin wall as Soviet-era leaders used were. Instead, he repeated a tradition revived last year of awarding medals to outstanding workers.
“These people are creating a strong and successful Russia,” Putin said today while awarding a gold Labor Hero medal to an Olympics coach, a museum director, a teacher, a regional farmer, and an oil-well repair engineer at OAO Surgutneftegas. “They are true, non-fiction heroes.”
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