'Putin's Army' tries sexy messaging ahead of 2012 elections

The social-networking phenomenon is urging women to tear their clothes off for Vladimir Putin. It's part of a bizarre range of PR activities rushing into a vacuum of real political competition.

By , Correspondent

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    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov are seen during the cabinet meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Wednesday, July 13.
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It calls itself "Putin's Army," already has more than 1,200 followers on Russia's main social networking site Vkontakte, and is urging young women to "tear" their clothes off as a message to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to step up and run for president in elections that are now barely eight months off.

Neither Mr. Putin nor President Dmitry Medvedev will openly state their intentions for the upcoming polls, and some very odd things have lately been rushing into the vacuum where normal political competition might otherwise be.

No one knows who is behind "Putin's Army," but its professionally-made video of a young woman praising Putin and preparing to rip off her T-shirt has gone viral since being posted last week on the blog of Kirill Schitov, a young pro-Putin deputy of the Moscow city Duma.

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"Hi, my name is Diana. I’m a student. I’m mad about a man who has changed the life of our country," says the video's narrator, presumably the leggy blonde walking purposefully through central Moscow. "He’s a first-rate politician and a chic guy. He’s Vladimir Putin.... There are millions who adore him, who trust him.

"But there are a few who hurl dirt at him. Maybe they’re scared? Or maybe they're just weak? Because they’ll never be in his place."

The main point is to announce a contest for the best video of a woman "tearing" something for Putin, to be posted on the Vkontakte page. The winner, it says, will get an iPad 2.

The sexy messaging is the latest creative attempt to build up Putin ahead of March 2012 elections, following a superhero comic strip and James Bond-style posters. Some analysts say it could backfire, and thus may be the work of detractors. But most people attribute it to Putin supporters, possibly people associated with the rapidly growing Popular Front that he recently started.

"This video is the work of a professional team, and that doesn't come cheap," says Rustem Agadamov, author of the popular blog Drugoi. "It's similar to some other things that have been going on, and there's no doubt that such things don't happen without the authorities' approval."

But the obvious suspects vigorously deny involvement.

"We don't have the slightest idea who they are," Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said by telephone Monday. "There are a lot of strange people around."

Kristina Potupchik, press secretary of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi, which has often staged demonstrations and street theater to dramatize conservative causes, says she doesn't know who did it either. "It is just one more independent project," says Ms. Potupchik. "These people clearly like Putin just as we do, that's it."

There have been quite a few people using Putin's name in dubious PR exercises lately.

Last year a group of "independent" female Moscow University students produced a risquée 2011 calendar in honor of Putin's birthday, which sold 50,000 copies. It featured the women in lingerie and was headlined "We Love You Vladimir Vladimirovich!" A full copy can be found on the blog of none other than Ms. Potupchik.

In May freelance cartoonist Sergei Kalenik posted a comic-strip on a specially created website www.superputin.ru – which has since had over 7 million hits. It cast Putin as a superhero who saves a busload of people from terrorists along with his sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev, clad in a bear costume. (An English translation of the strip is available at the site.)

Last week someone put up professionally produced posters in several Moscow bus stations that depicted Putin as James Bond, but they were quickly taken down after Mr. Peskov complained.

Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow, says that things may not be what they seem in the murky, under-the-carpet Russian political struggle currently in full swing.

"This Putin's Army video is clearly a professional work, and it may well be an effort not to promote Putin but to discredit him with his conservative and Russian Orthodox base," says Mr. Mukhin.

"Young people won't be inspired by this approach of using sex to sell, while many traditional supporters of Putin will be turned off. Also, in this video Putin is named as 'president,' and that can only be aimed at souring his relations with the incumbent president, Medvedev. No good for Putin will come of this."

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