As Putin’s Popularity and the Economy Dip, Protests Pop Up Across Russia
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Yevgeny Dubinin had never been to a political protest before. But he was so angry Moscow authorities had refused to register opposition candidates in the city council election that he couldn’t sit at home. “They’re taking away people’s right to vote, telling them whom to vote for,” the 44-year-old business manager said on his way to a late-July demonstration on the capital’s main street, Tverskaya, that had been denied a permit by authorities. “If people don’t stand up for their last remaining right now,” he said, “they’ll lose everything else.”
Once Dubinin arrived, he managed to hold up his small homemade sign for only a few moments. “I heard a scream, and then I saw five or six men in uniforms and masks running toward me,” he recalls. “They took me by the arms and legs and dragged me to a bus with bars on the windows. I just managed to turn as they pushed me in, so instead of breaking my nose on the door frame, I just banged my head.”
The protest-arrest cycle, which began in July, has become a weekly routine in Moscow, even as escalating crackdowns by police have led to thousands of detentions. Some are facing five years or more in jail under “mass unrest” statutes, which are designed to quell riots, not the peaceful rallies the Kremlin’s opponents are mounting. In at least one case, police threatened to strip the parental rights of a couple who’d brought their toddler to a protest. Authorities have deployed thousands of riot police and phalanxes of investigators and hastily organized music and food festivals—including one with the unfortunate name Meat&Beat—to divert potential protesters.
The demonstrations represent the biggest public challenge to Vladimir Putin’s two-decade rule since protests interrupted his campaign for a third term in 2012. Then, his decision to return to the presidency combined with allegations of widespread fraud in parliamentary elections the previous December to set off a wave of anti-Kremlin actions that brought tens of thousands into the streets. The six-month opposition drive eventually wilted under pressure similar to that now being applied to demonstrators.
Not long afterward, Putin’s approval ratings surged amid a patriotic wave inspired by the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, reaching highs of almost 90%. Last year, however, his popularity plummeted to 64% after he pushed legislation through the State Duma that increased the retirement age by five years, to 60 for women and 65 for men, which will cost the average Russian 900,000 rubles ($13,800) in lost benefits.
Incomes in Russia have fallen for five straight years because of the persistently low price of oil, Russia’s main export, and the grinding impact of U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed over Crimea. Simmering discontent has periodically boiled over into protests—not only in the politically energized capital but also in the heartland. The complaints tend to be about local issues such as plans to build a trash dump or low salaries for state workers, but anti-Kremlin slogans aren’t uncommon.
“It’s all part of the reaction to the overall sense of injustice: the lies on television, the unfulfilled past promises,” says Sergei Belanovsky, a Moscow sociologist who was among the few to predict major protests in the 2011-12 political cycle. “The repressions will help [the government] in the short term,” he says, “but there will be more flare-ups all over.”
In a few cases, the authorities have given in. Spontaneous demonstrations against plans to build a church on a popular park in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg this spring attracted the attention of Putin, who called for a local referendum on the idea. After voters rejected the plan for the church, authorities dropped the idea.
The stakes are higher for big national issues in the capital. While the Moscow City Council has limited power, the election is seen as a warm-up for parliamentary voting in 2021. Controlling that vote is critical for the Kremlin as it looks for ways to ensure Putin’s rule extends beyond the end of his current term in 2024. Term limits prevent him from running for re-election, but top officials are already talking about possible constitutional changes as the deadline looms.
Putin is leaning on his government to get the economy going by then. He’s hoping to revive the engine of his popularity in his first two terms: a steady rise in living standards. He’s laid out plans for a massive $400 billion spending program to boost growth in the coming years, though even his own officials aren’t sure it will work.
For the moment, Kremlin officials are confident they can keep the lid on popular anger, combining targeted concessions and an extra-tough line against unsanctioned demonstrations to keep the unrest from festering. The harsh crackdown has the added benefit for the Kremlin of saddling a number of prominent opposition politicians with criminal convictions, which, under Russian law, will bar them from running for office in the next political cycle. Authorities are looking into allegations of money laundering at the anti-corruption foundation set up by opposition leader Alexey Navalny—who’s sat out most of this summer’s protests in jail—in an apparent effort to crush a key resource for Kremlin critics. State media have also blasted the protests as inspired by Russia’s enemies in the West.
Turnout at the demonstration on Aug. 10—which had been granted a permit by authorities—was as high as 60,000, according to an independent count, making it the largest since 2012. “Saturday’s protest in Moscow, which definitely set a record for numbers for this time of year, won’t have any political consequences,” says Konstantin Kostin, a former Kremlin official who now heads a think tank that works with the government. “Modern hybrid regimes—democracy plus soft authoritarianism—can easily deal with this kind of action. By repressive means, of course, if the law is violated,” he adds.
Kostin may well be speaking with the overconfidence of an insider in the hermetically sealed world of the Kremlin elite. A late-July poll commissioned by his group found 37% of Muscovites support the protests, while only 27% have a negative view of them. The Sept. 8 city council vote is still weeks away, giving public anger room to grow.
Dubinin was released quickly after he was detained, but he sat out the next week’s protest, nursing his bruised head. He says he filed a complaint against police and emergency workers who ignored his appeals about the rough treatment. “If they wanted to scare people, then they succeeded,” he said soon after. “If I go to the next one, I have to decide for myself whether I’m ready to die.”
On Aug. 10, however, he was back out on the streets, and now says he’s overcome his fears of getting hurt again. “Now I’ve decided that it’s wrong to be scared. I’ll be going to all the demonstrations—permitted and not—to stand up for my civil rights and support those who were arrested.” —With Stepan Kravchenko
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