Recent polls show an increase in the willingness among Russians to protest. This follows the detainment and eventual release of journalist Ivan Golunov last week, which triggered a wave of protests in Moscow. Although the protest was relatively small, it was an unusual display of discontent, especially from the media. This was also a rare Kremlin reversal amid mounting public opposition.
The Levada Center’s poll from May, which was released last week, showed that 27% of those polled said they were ready to take part in protests over economic issues, while 22% would take part in political protests. To put these figures into context, the pro-protest polls were lower in 2011 when massive anti-government demonstrations took place. Does this mean that Russia is close to another spell of unrest?
There has been a growing number of local protests, such as the demonstrations against a new cathedral in Ekaterinburg and against solid waste disposal facilities in Ufa and Shies, and more recently the Golunov case. While it is relatively easy for the authorities to make small concessions on these issues, such protests risk sparking more widespread demonstrations. However, that risk seems unlikely at the moment. According to Chris Weafer from Macro-Advisory, “These protests are not expected to spread. The regime allows small demonstrations as a safety valve for dissent. It would take a real 1917-style economic collapse to bring the people out on to the streets. Not even our worst-case scenario would see the sort of economic collapse that would destroy the regime’s credibility as in say 1989, when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost faith in its own ability to govern.”
Moreover, these recent protests have not been met by the usual clampdown, rather by concessions suggested by the Kremlin or by President Vladimir Putin. This is rare, but not new. Putin has been known to make concessions to groups that address him directly either via the streets or at one of his “consult the public” events like the phone-in planned for 20 June (there were reports that the Kremlin wanted to resolve the Golunov case before the phone-in; but Putin’s spokesperson has denied this). However, if the protests are ascribed to foreign agitators, then a clampdown is all but assured.
Take the Golunov case versus US investor Michael Calvey and his colleagues from Baring Vostok Capital Partners (BVCP). Calvey is under house arrest and four senior BVCP managers are in pre-trial detention under charges that seem equally trumped-up. The big difference here is that there is a lot less public interest in the plight of foreign businessmen than that of a Russian reporter. Another is that a large part of Russia’s press, including the pro-government arm, came out in favour of Golunov. Although the press is less important in Russia than in the West, it is still part of the selectorate in a way that foreign investors are not. Lastly, the abuse of office is much more blatant in Golunov’s case than in the BVCP case.
On a systemic level, Putin and his closest elite will feel that they have the popular protest movement under control. Putin is highly experienced at knowing when to give in to a groundswell of popular unrest and when to clamp down on it, and these incidents do not threaten this model. The key is that the resources are available to find a solution for the aggrieved local interests. The Kremlin will, of course, be aware of the opinion polls that show an increasing desire to protest. They have their own polling organisation that comes under the Federal Protection Service, underlining that the fear of protests is seen more as a matter of personal security for the elite than for the state as a ruling body. “We believe that the awareness of this upswell in discontent is informing a shift in policy that should boost living standards. The elite sees this as a form of democracy in that it is adapting policy to public opinion, even if the voters are never given a real choice as to who decides on policy,” said Chris.
For now, Putin must contend with economic issues. The latest data show that real incomes in Russia fell 2.3% yoy in the first quarter of 2019. The next couple of years will see the government trying to boost living standards via the National Projects. Large public spending projects, focusing on improving living standards and demographics, as well as improving Russia’s infrastructure are all part of this. If this fails, then there will likely be protests, and Putin will have to manage them against the backdrop of his succession planning for the end of his presidency in 2024.
Putin’s most recent major statement was his address to the joint houses of the Federal Assembly, which was heavy on promises to pensioners and families, and had a more conciliatory and humble tone than previously. The next test will be the presidential phone-in on 20 June, which is likely to focus on correcting the failure of local authorities in distributing the Federal government’s largesse to its intended recipients.
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