By Trisha Roy
In the bitterly cold winter, Moscow witnessed hundreds of people taking to the streets to protest against the Russian Elections next year. Under the leadership of Alexei Navalny, a majority of the country has highlighted the authoritarian and corrupt nature of the existing government. This has come to light after Putin declared in December 2017 of his intent to rerun for the position of the president in the 2019 elections. The election would be a defining event; either allowing Putin to serve his fourth term as the president, or a change of leadership further leading to the formation of a new Russia in the international politics.
Putin enjoys popularity
In December 2017, the world community was officially informed of Putin’s contestation in the re-elections of March 2019. Vladimir Putin’s announcement immediately saw opinions polls showing positive chances of his win. A probable win of Putin would help him to further extend his dominance in Russia’s political landscape into the third decade. Mr Putin’s approval ratings top 80 percent, making him certain to win an easy first-round victory. Forming the base of his supporters are blue-collar workers and state employees. He is lauded by allies as a ‘father of the nation’ figure who has restored national pride and expanded Moscow’s global clout with interventions in Syria and Ukraine. There is no obvious successor, and many investors opine that the lack of a clear succession plan along with the jockeying for position among Russian elites for dominance in the post-Putin era is becoming the biggest political risk.
Putin has served in the office as the prime minister or the president since 2000. If re-elected, it would make him the longest-serving ruler after Joseph Stalin.
The unsettling opposition
The Russian opposition figurehead, Alexei Navalny along with some of his supporters was arrested in Moscow following his attempt to lead an anti-Putin protest in the face of the upcoming presidential elections. Alexei Navalny is a Russian lawyer, politician, and financial activist who gained international fame as a critic of corruption and Putin. His arrest has come shortly after police forced their way into his headquarters in Moscow in an apparent attempt to disrupt an online broadcast of nationwide opposition rallies.
In the last three years, the Russian economy has faced the conjuration of Western sanctions and lower hydrocarbon prices, which have exposed its structural deficiencies. It has resulted in the economy shrinking by more than 4.5 percent. More importantly, real disposable income has fallen by 12.3 percent, leading to an increase in poverty and unemployment levels. Several regions, particularly the ‘monotowns’, suffer from unsustainable levels of mounting debt. Against this backdrop, Navalny’s anti-corruption message has struck a chord with a section of Russian citizens.
Towering influence of Navalny
The anti-corruption campaigner has faced significant blockades from the existing government. Analysts have claimed that this is to ensure Putin faces no direct challenge in the next elections. The Kremlin critic has been barred from standing for public office after being convicted on fraud charges that he claims were trumped up to prevent him from challenging Putin at the ballot box. Authorities in Moscow and St. Petersburg refused to give permission for the protests despite which, about 2,000 people defied the bitter cold and a heavy police presence to gather in Pushkin Square, Moscow—a short walk from the Kremlin. However, numbers at the rallies were far down in March and June, when Navalny brought thousands of people out on to the streets to protest over alleged corruption by Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister.
Although Navalny has huge support among Russian liberals, many opposition members remain suspicious of him due to his links with Russia’s nationalist movement. Youngsters have claimed to be a part of the protests not because they love Navalny, but because they hate Putin. Navalny has accused Kremlin to be afraid to face genuine challengers at elections and handpicking and approving rival candidates. Although Navalny is polling at about 2%, his supporters say an election campaign would have allowed him to capitalise on growing discontent over corruption and rising poverty. Moreover, Navalny unexpectedly took almost 30% of the vote at Moscow’s mayoral election in 2013, securing second place and almost forcing the Kremlin’s candidate into an embarrassing run-off. The rallies last week are unlikely to set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin, which is keen to present a positive image of Russia before the World Cup in June. These protests also present Navalny with the challenge of rejuvenating his protest movement before the election.
A brewing revolution
More significantly, the protestors have targeted Prime Minister Medvedev rather than President Putin. In the Russian system of governance, the prime minister guides the economy and consequently, Putin’s popularity remains in excess of 80 percent. As stated above, he is credited with ensuring stability and restoring Russia’s great power status. The domestic discourse including unemployment and poverty is also geared to encourage Russian resilience against perpetual adversaries, and Putin is demonstrative of this romanticised manifestation. It is, therefore, unlikely that a movement capable of unseating him will evolve in the near future.
Further, the number of protestors, though youthful and vocal, has been quite small. During the protests, the protestors objected to any comparison with the 2014 Ukrainian Maidan Revolution. Furthermore, doubts also exist about their ability to mount a prolonged campaign. If push comes to shove, it is likely that Putin will divert attention by appointing a new Prime Minister. He could also channel the protests to overhaul the administration by appointing younger technocrats. This approach might help taper the existing fault-lines. Interestingly, Medvedev’s popularity in the aftermath of the demonstrations has declined by a whopping 10 percent, even as Putin’s remains unaffected.
Painting the future of politics
The government, meanwhile, appears to have adopted a two-pronged strategy to keep a lid on the protests. First, the clampdown has been measured, with the majority of detained people being let off with a warning or a token fine. Evidently, this is in sharp contrast to the stern action taken in 2012. Such an approach can also be viewed through the lens of allowing protestors to vent out their frustrations. And second, the government has sought to discredit Navalny and increase its regulation of the social media. An awkward attempt at a youth-oriented campaign over the social media has been doing the rounds. This is in line with plans to create a loyal youth following. Consequently, it is unlikely that a regime change is on the horizon, even though corruption might be the government’s weak-spot. Opponents like Navalny are, however, likely to use this opportunity to increase their political footprints by riding the wave of anti-corruption. This might lead to a more vibrant political discourse in the future. But the perfect storm that can replicate the events of 1917 is not visible on the horizon.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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