The biggest controversy gripping Russia today isn't explicitly political, but something Russians appear to get more passionate about – the choice of a mascot for the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Charges of plagiarism, amateurism, and bad taste are flying, and some are even hinting that popular voting for the mascot may have been rigged to ensure the candidate backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would win.
It's not the sort of trouble the Sochi Winter Games needed, since they are already plagued by allegations of environmental recklessness and corruption as well as worries about deteriorating security in the northern Caucasus region.
In the first-ever open election for an Olympic mascot, more than 1.4 million Russians cast their votes by phone, text message, and e-mail over the weekend. On Monday, the Sochi Olympic Committee declared the winner to be a sleek, wide-eyed, snowboard-toting leopard that Mr. Putin had publicly named as his personal "symbolic choice."
Two runners-up – a plump polar bear and a petit bunny rabbit – will serve as auxiliary mascots, representing the "silver" and "bronze" positions on the Olympic podium, officials said.
"All top three characters will become the Olympic Winter Games mascots," Olympic chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said in a statement. "The mascots are the choice of our whole country and will remain in the history of the Olympic movement."
The mascots were selected from a short list of 11 designs, culled from more than 24,000 ideas submitted by the Russian public over the past year. The voting was kicked off by a TV marathon hosted by the chief of Russia's state-run Channel One, Konstantin Ernst.
Some viewers began to suspect that all was not above board when one popular contender, a stylized version of Grandfather Frost (the Russian Santa Claus) was suddenly withdrawn in mid-vote over what organizers called a "copyright issue."
But when the three winners were announced, a storm of controversy erupted.
Ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, deputy speaker of the Duma, slammed all three designs as unworthy. "The bear is the dumbest animal," he said, "the leopard is vicious, and the rabbit is a coward."
Viktor Chizhikov, who designed one of the most popular Olympic mascots of all time, a cuddly teddy bear named Misha who symbolized the Soviet Union's 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, claimed that his idea had been recycled to create the polar bear, which won second place in the voting.
"It's exactly the same as mine – the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the smile, even though it's been distorted," Mr. Chizhikov told the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station. "I don't like it when people steal ideas; it's always very painful for an author."
Professionals sneered. "This is complete madness; out of nothing they created an event of popular excitement," says Vasily Tsigankov, head of graphic design at the National Institute of Design in Moscow. "These three wild symbols were made by amateurs. They are three clumsy designs, produced by people who don't know how to draw, and selected by people who are not professionals either. It looks like no trained artists even took part in the competition."
Some commentators suggested that Putin's public embrace of the athletic snow leopard, which had earlier been lagging far behind in public polling, may have ensured its victory – in much the same way the hyper-popular Putin easily engineered the election of his own successor, Dmitry Medvedev, to Kremlin leadership three years ago.
But it was Mr. Medvedev – he may have favored the polar bear design (the Russian word for bear is "medved") – who dropped the heaviest hint of all.
At a government meeting to consider the adoption of a new electronic national ID card, Medvedev said he hoped the process of selecting a design for the card would be "more equitable than the discussion of the symbols for our Olympics."