On June 6th 2019, Ivan Golunov, a well-known journalist of the Meduza online newspaper, was arrested on very dubious grounds of drug abuse and possession. Widespread dissent followed the arrest, particularly voiced by Russiaʼs remaining independent media. A week later Golunov was released, all of the charges against him were dropped and President Putin ordered the Minister of the Interior to dismiss two high-ranking police officers.
This episode is part of a larger trend. In May 2019, thousands of people in Yekaterinburg were protesting against the plan to erect a massive cathedral in the central square of the city. After repeated clashes with the police, Putin demanded that a local opinion poll should be conducted on the issue. However, the plan was stopped even before the highly expected results (more than 70% of inhabitants were against the cathedral) of the poll were published. Likewise, since early 2018 multiple protests against landfills have spread all over Russia, most recently in the Arkhangelsk region where thousands have protested against evasive, yet blatant plans to dump waste from Moscow into the arctic wilderness. Again, after Putin intervened, the plan was put on hold.
Russia’s society on the eve of a power transition
Something seems to be happening in Russian society. Despite the small size of protests compared to the whole of the population, their societal and political resonance has become stronger than before. Citizens appear to be more determined to protest. And it seems that only Putinʼs interventions can calm down those regularly erupting grievances. The rulerʼs personal interference in various societal issues is certainly not a new thing in Russiaʼs political history. However, besides demonstrating his political authority, such involvements pinpoint to the overall weakness of Russiaʼs governance and political system. In Russiaʼs vertical model of governance it is expected that regions simply fulfill tasks that are imposed from the top. In reality, the fear of sanctions and the lack of resources discourage lower levels to make decisions that could solve regional problems. Of course, being dependent on Putin makes the system vulnerable, particularly in the years to come with the constitutional limit of Putinʼs leadership looming.
Whatever the procedure in 2024 – a transition from Putin to Putin or from Putin to someone else – it will hardly be a smooth one. The hugely unpopular pension reform in the summer of 2018 was a turning point in Putinʼs hitherto Teflon-coated image. Following unprecedented protests across Russia his public approval ratings plummeted. Historically, in Russia political successions are closely linked to Russiaʼs political crises – and current societal and political dynamics indicate that the political climate is becoming less favourable for the Kremlinʼs public approval. Also, Putin’s recipe for success – memory of the chaotic 1990s, coupled with a demand for stability and socioeconomic improvement – does not work like it did ten years ago. A survey of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2017 showed that for the first time during Putinʼs rule, there were more Russians who wanted considerable changes than Russians longing for stability.
In 2018, a survey about value orientations of Russians showed that the proportion of Russians who wanted Russiaʼs future based on human rights, democracy and individual freedoms increased by 10% compared to 2014 (from 27% to 37%). Similarly, those who think that Russiaʼs future must rely on traditional and religious values fell from 35% to 27%. The share of those who considered social justice as the most important ideal rose most sharply by 12%.
These attitudinal and value shifts are strengthened by ongoing generational shifts. These are connected to an increase of people for whom neither the nostalgia of the Soviet era nor painful memories of the 1990s play any meaningful role. An important indication of this trend were the anti-corruption protests led by Aleksey Navalny in 2017. In contrast to previous mass protests (in 2011-12) in Russiaʼs major cities, the 2017 protests erupted in places where no previous political actions had taken place and where the vast majority of protesters were under the age of twenty.
Looking at the various protest movements since 2012, and in particular in recent years, a pattern emerges: After every protest movement repressive measures against protesters were tightened, protests waned until new local grievances began to unfold. Regardless of the weakening ʻCrimean euphoriaʼ among the population, we have witnessed repeated attempts by the state to strengthen moral conservatism and the state-imposed patriotism in society as sort of ideological guidelines for Russiaʼs assertive policies against the West and its liberal principles. At the same time, policymakers are aware that young peoples’ views have been diverting from the official line, which in turn resulted in an increased push towards more conservatism by the state. It seems obvious that this gap will deepen in the coming years.
The state’s battle against time
In line with the Kremlinʼs authoritarian turn since 2012, repressions against civil society and protests will likely remain harsh and possibly tighten even further. For example, recent legislative measures against Internet freedom have not remained empty shells. According to the human rights group Agora, in 2017 authorities censored online content in 2,196 cases and blocked access to websites in 88,832 cases. In 2018 these figures grew to 161,171 and 488,609 respectively. This massive growth illustrates that the regime has the political will and at least the partial technological capacity to censor information that it believes to be harmful. The logic behind this strategy is the view that any information out of reach and control of the government can be potentially dangerous. The Kremlinʼs ongoing plans to establish a sovereign Russian Internet “against the Westʼs attempts to isolate Russia from the global Internet” is part of this logic.
Nevertheless, the Kremlinʼs battle against time is anything but won. During the first four months of 2019 the number of Internet users passed the overall number of television viewers in Russia. Given televisionʼs pivotal role in the Kremlinʼs domestic propaganda, it becomes understandable why the regime has become more nervous and tougher with regard to the Internet. Interestingly, the Internet control intensifies while the regimeʼs public approval deteriorates. Given the socioeconomic difficulties in Russia the issue seems to be more an ad-hoc defense of the regime’s corrupted interests rather than any calculated authoritarian strategy that could allow some ʻcarrotsʼ (e.g. special search engines and sophisticated filter systems like we see in China) along with restrictions. However, it seems that the role of ‘televisionʼ as the central state media is likely to decrease in the future. This will increase pressure to intensify political control over the Internet. At the same time, attempts to produce credible pro-government online content have so far been rather modest.
Pitfalls of Russia’s electoral autocracy
Are there any solutions to release political pressures other than Putinʼs personal interventions? (Especially in times when public trust in Putin is decreasing.)
Following the Russian constitution – as in any formally democratic polity – elections should be the natural solution. Yet, elections under Putinʼs rule have become increasingly inane, although the regime still relies on electoral legitimacy. Recent developments in Russian elections demonstrate a typical dilemma that haunts electoral authoritarian regimes: The exclusion of real opposition candidates and the lack of genuine competition have led to decreasing (often manipulated) turnouts. As a result, elections fail to provide reliable information on citizensʼ moods.
Another problem is of course that the liberalization of elections is too risky for authoritarian regimes. In Russia, the so-called systemic opposition, in particular the most powerful representative of it, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), has neither managed nor wanted to challenge the Kremlin-led status-quo between the government and the ʻcorrectly behavingʼ opposition. Yet, CPRFʼs loyalty to the Kremlin has been questioned in the regions. For example, in regional elections in September 2018 the regime faced unprecedented protest voting that in fact led to the defeat of the Kremlinʼs United Russia in four regions. Citizens voted for any candidate except United Russia who came to the electoral lists – and in particular, CPRF received a lot of votes.
Overall public approval of every political party is extremely weak and the 2021 Duma election will be a crucial waypoint for the regime in holding its hitherto political design. This election will be important for the opposition as well as regarding the cooperation between systemic and non-systemic (non-parliamentary) opposition. If the Kremlinʼs position becomes more problematic, temptations to challenge its electoral control will likely increase. Several regional elections prior to 2021 will provide important insights into this matter.
Implications for the future
The political and economic control of the Kremlin over different parts of Russia will likely remain, but the message is clear. In Russia, to use a commonly used proverb, “the fridge is challenging the television,” meaning that the everyday reality of citizens is more and more inconsistent with the official message. The overall economic situation and prospects hardly provide a rapid remedy for the regime while citizensʼ willingness to rally around the flag and leader, as in the case of Crimea in 2014, has considerably weakened. Thus, a ‘small victorious war’ in order to address domestic political challenges by invoking national pride appears to be a highly unlikely scenario.
Finally, recent data shows that the willingness for emigration has been the highest among highly educated young citizens in Russiaʼs urban centers. Further political implications of this trend are not yet known. On the one hand, one could suggest that brain drain will increase pressures for a variety of reforms in order to increase the countryʼs overall attractiveness. On the other hand, the regimeʼs conservative stance and fear of any liberalization will hardly show any attitudinal changes in this respect. Moreover, brain drain might offer short-term political benefits for the regime as potentially dangerous opposition players leave the country. But many of Russiaʼs youth will remain in the country. Their newfound expectations and opinions may challenge the state in the future and could lead to new societal conflicts.