Biggest protests in a decade rock Russian capital, but pose no viable challenge to Putin
The fall in Putin’s popularity is no surprise given the state of Russia’s economy, which has been growing at a snail's pace since 2014 - thanks to the oil price collapse and the Western sanctions.
Hundreds of protesters demanding free and fair elections clashed with riot police in the Russian capital on Saturday. The current round of protests started on July 17, when more than 50 opposition candidates, including President Vladimir Putin’s top critic Alexie Navalny, were barred from contesting in the Moscow local body polls.
According to reports, the protests are the biggest to rock the Russian capital in more than a decade. It comes at a time when, according to Levada Centre, an independent think tank based in Moscow, Putin’s popularity has hit a “multi-year low”. More importantly, the number of Russians willing to take to the streets has gone up in recent years.
The fall in Putin’s popularity is no surprise given the state of Russia’s economy, which has been growing at a snail's pace since 2014 -- thanks to the oil price collapse and the Western sanctions. For most ordinary Russians, rising costs have pushed down the living standards.
However, looking at the ongoing protests, one must not assume that Putin’s days in the Kremlin are numbered. The present demonstrations pose no viable challenge to his grip on power.
More popular than his opponents
Despite a dip in his popularity, Putin remains more popular than any of the opposition figures, including Navalny. As of June, his approval rating was 68 per cent. That means he is still fairly popular. His supporters think he is “an experienced politician” with “a strong will”.
Moreover, although the protests are the biggest in recent memory, they are mostly confined to Moscow and are attended by only a few thousand, and in the case of Saturday, a few hundred demonstrators. In a country of 140 million, these numbers are almost negligible.
Also, in order to pose a bigger challenge to Putin, the protest leaders must cultivate support beyond the intelligentsia concentrated in the cosmopolitan capital. At present, opposition leaders like Navalny or Lyubov Sobol enjoy very little support outside the national capital. In fact, Levada Centre found that at the end of 2018, more than 60 per cent of the Russians had not even heard of Navalny. The Kremlin’s firm control over the country's media is part of the reason. The state decides not only what people see, but also the narrative.
Moreover, the vast majority of Russians appear to be politically disinterested. More than 70 per cent of those who took part in a recent survey said, they are not ready to be politically active. Among the reasons cited were a “lack of knowledge about politics” and a belief that it is “not for ordinary people”. Also, about 83 per cent said, they paid little attention to the 2018 election cycle. That year, Putin won the presidential election securing 76 per cent of the votes -- way ahead of any other contender. Polls also showed 3 in 4 respondents were satisfied with the results.
Even among those who pay attention to political events, anti-Putin protests generated little sympathy.
A trust deficit
President Putin’s continuing popularity, despite a lacklustre economy and plummeting living standards, has baffled many of his critics in the West.
Experts say lack of a credible alternative explains why he is still popular. If not Putin, then who? A vast majority of Russians think their country should be led by a strong leader who is capable of maintaining stability. They have not forgotten the embarrassing days under former President Boris Yeltsin when governance failed and deprivation was widespread. Putin, despite all his flaws, is a strong leader whom they feel they can trust. He has rebuilt Russia from the ashes of the Soviet Union, and has made it a force to be reckoned with.
What about his opponents? His critics are routinely praised in the foreign press. They are portrayed as heroes fighting for democracy and people’s rights.
About two years ago, this author wrote a piece in the same newspaper, calling Navalny, “the man whom Putin fears the most”. Although Navalny continues to be a headache for the Kremlin, today, the vast majority of Russians don’t see him as a leader who is efficient enough to replace Putin.
A poll showed only 3 per cent trusted Navalny. Less than 1 per cent said they would vote to elect him as the president. In contrast, 57 per cent said they would vote for Putin if an election were to be held the next day.
The way forward
Putin has agreed to step down in 2024. As of now, there is little clarity on who would lead the country afterwards. Some observers feel he won’t step down. Others say he would cede power to a puppet and continue to control the state’s affairs.
No matter what, over the next five years, leaders of the Opposition must work hard to win the trust and support of the people. They must demonstrate that they have a viable alternative to the present leader. In fact, working hard is not enough. They must pray that the economic situation remains unchanged or (better) deteriorates.
In the end, things won’t be easy for them. For wherever they go, they’ll be under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin. Can they go far enough?