Elections, protests and the slow decline of Putinism

On 8 September, from the Arctic to the Black Sea, Russians will vote in local and regional elections. All eyes, however, will be on Moscow.

Since mid July pro-democracy protesters have taken to the street angry at the decision to disqualify opposition candidates from running for the local city council. The numbers have dropped in recent weeks. On 31 August several thousand marched on the capital — a far cry from the 60,000 that rallied on 10 August. The Kremlin will be hoping the momentum has faded for good.

Yet the protests are a symptom of wider frustrations that will outlast Sunday’s election. What started as anger over an insignificant council vote quickly evolved into something not about candidates but about accountability, state power, and — 20 years on from first becoming leader –, the health of President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

The protests will have come as a surprise to the Kremlin. The summer is a quiet time in the capital and the city council elections rarely raise an eyebrow. The 45 seat assembly is mostly decorative and has little political power. That sits in the hands of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who, along with the ruling United Russia party, sought to make the elections as uneventful as possible. The hope was for a repeat of 2014 — low turnout, little interest, no fuss.

Things didn’t go to plan. Over the summer government friendly candidates barely campaigned as a host of opposition figures collected the thousands of necessary signatures required to run. In a moment of blatant political engineering the electoral commission then found these signatures to be invalid. High profile opposition figures called on the capital’s population to respond.

The result has been some of the largest protests in Russia since 2012 and some of the worst police violence in years. The Kremlin has a history of using carrots and sticks to send messages. In this case it has been a reminder of the coercive and political power that remains in the hands of the regime.

After all, it would have been much easier to allow opposition candidates to simply run for a token victory on an insignificant council. But Moscow has decided it wants total control over the process. From the paranoid halls of the Kremlin it is understandable. It sees the council vote as not about local issues but as a platform for opposition activism leading up to the 2021 parliamentary and 2024 presidential elections. The symbolism worries Moscow.

After the dust settles, how significant will these protests have been? Taken on their own, not so much. Few will have taken any notice outside Moscow. Indeed, there has been no official opposition running them. Some of the biggest rallies went ahead despite influential activists being detained. While this loose coalition has allowed for spontaneous organisation it has also stymied the development of a long term political strategy. Without one it is unclear what form the protest movement will take after the council elections are over.

The protests in Moscow have not happened in isolation, however. They are part of what is a rise in civic action across the country, spurred on by growing frustrations amongst ordinary Russians over a range of issues like pension reform and internet freedoms. Local activism, often apolitical and targeting everything from environmental damage and corruption to false arrest, is becoming more common too. The events triggering these protests vary but those taking part share an anger at ineffective governance and a hope of better representation.

None of this means the regime is facing an imminent crisis, particularly in the short term. President Putin’s popularity may have dropped but it remains stable, hovering around 66 per cent. The economy is sluggish but resilient with currency reserves at a record high. The president’s grip on power certainly isn’t in danger. If it were, it would likely come from inside the Kremlin rather than from the street.

In the long term though, this rise in civic action shows that everything is not so rosy for Moscow. For all its thuggery and kleptocracy it is a regime that still relies on legitimacy derived from the population. Mr Putin’s popularity is a complex mix of genuine loyalty and apathy. The support of millions of ordinary Russians — especially outside major cities — is essential. But this support is not guaranteed. While many will have lived through the early 2000’s boom — and be thankful for it –, consecutive years of declining incomes means that a sluggish and resilient economy simply isn’t good enough. Especially when there is no quick economic fix to stagnation and promises of a brighter future continue to ring hollow.

This is about a slow decline of Putinism not revolution. So far, despite the rise in protests there is no obvious alternative to channel these feelings into a political reality. Should an opposition emerge that can harness this energy beyond the street, particularly amongst Russia’s youth, then the birth of change may not be so far away.

Published September 2019

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