You’ve probably seen the images from Moscow splashed across front pages in recent years: Protesters flooding the streets of Russia’s capital, hoisting placards denouncing President Vladimir Putin as riot cops swarm the crowd. Usually, Alexei Navalny — the handsome and charismatic darling of the beleaguered opposition movement — is somewhere at the helm, or being hauled off into a police van. The message at these rallies is clear and highly political: down with the regime.
But elsewhere in Russia, in regions spanning the vast country, a different kind of protest has been bubbling up, potentially threatening to undo the veneer of stability for which Putin has long been praised by the loyal masses. These demonstrations are localized, lower-profile and purely socioeconomic in nature, against problems like poor municipal services or low-level corruption.
While they rarely decry the Kremlin or call for sweeping change, they often involve the working and lower middle class, as well as nonideological Russians — those, in other words, who have helped keep Putin in power for so long. “They’re the people who turn out to vote for him,” says Chris Miller, an assistant professor of international history at Tufts University, “and they’re the people who never complain, even when their wages fall by 12 percent in the year after the annexation of Crimea.”
They [the protests] show the increasing ineffectiveness of the state apparatus …
Irina Olimpieva, Center for Independent Social Research, St. Petersburg
None of these protests are particularly representative, and many of them are small. But they reveal the broad extent of everyday issues — not the democratic politics and pro-market reforms called for by Moscow’s intelligentsia — that rile up ordinary Russians who have supported Putin for the best part of two decades. As Putin prepares for his almost inevitable fourth term as president, experts are watching to see whether these protests by a previously silent majority — long seduced by charm and propaganda but increasingly tired of low living standards — will bubble into something more.
“They [the protests] show the increasing ineffectiveness of the state apparatus as it operates in a variety of different spheres,” says Irina Olimpieva, a researcher at the Center for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg.
Politically, the past year has been fairly tumultuous for Russia. As part of Navalny’s ill-fated campaign for the presidency, the popular anti-corruption crusader launched a series of anti-government rallies that, though rooted in Moscow, fanned out across the country, promoting his message to new cadres of mostly progressive, well-educated Russians in larger cities. Still, while society remains deeply polarized, most Russians are still on Putin’s side, says Graeme Robertson, who studies Russian protests at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Yet Russia’s noisy resurgence on the world stage, which has buoyed the strongman’s popularity, has been costly. Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine earned it punishing sanctions, and, combined with sagging global oil prices over roughly the same period, the country’s economy took a serious hit. Its interference in the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 has earned Russia a fresh wave of sanctions from Washington over the past year. While Russians generally seem patient at the moment, thanks partly to an economy only now recovering from recession, experts suggest that could change if their quality of life continues to stagnate. Sluggish long-term growth, for instance, or continuing bureaucratic mismanagement would do the trick.
Some have already begun expressing their frustration. According to a survey by the Moscow-based Center for Economic and Political Reform, released in November, protests grew by nearly 60 percent between the beginning of 2017 and the third quarter, from 284 to 445 — the majority of them focused on socioeconomic issues. Most prominent was the renewal of nationwide protests by long-haul truckers over a controversial toll system, which first broke out in late 2015. Farmers in southern Russia have protested against the illegal seizure of land. Defrauded homeowners have hit the streets in various regions, from western Russia to Siberia.
Other actions targeted more mundane issues. Take, for example, a pledge in November by several hundred rally-goers in a town 250 miles northwest of Moscow to refuse the services of a local trash collector. Or the recent uprising of residents in the remote northern town of Segezha, a rotting mono-industry outpost, against their mayor over hazardous housing, decrepit roads and poor public transport.
Analysts are careful to note these protests aren’t overtly political. At times, demonstrators even appeal to Putin himself for help — such is the paternalistic character he’s crafted over the years, which has earned him sky-high approval ratings. What’s more, says Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, those worst-hit, such as the older and poorly educated, are unable to even articulate exactly what sorts of policies would improve their lives.
But these protests, though disjointed at the moment, involve the very section of Russia’s population that has held Putin’s regime up through crises that might have crippled others, and ignoring them could be dangerous for the president. A think tank chaired by former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime Putin confidant who has pushed for reform, has warned the federal government to keep an eye on rising discontent in Russia’s regions.
The root cause of many of the maladies sparking these protests is the nature of the regime itself, critics say: rigidly managed, predatory and hopelessly corrupt. Institutional reforms like those suggested by Kudrin would undermine its very foundation, according to Brian Taylor, the chair of political science at Syracuse University. “In that respect,” he says, “I don’t think efforts to increase the independence of the courts or to increase bureaucratic accountability — any of those sorts of things — are really going to be under serious consideration.”
A convergence between the two forms of protest — socioeconomic and political — could be destabilizing for the regime, says Miller of Tufts University. The rolling trucker strikes, for one, have already become politicized, Olimpieva adds, thanks to official efforts to ignore their plight. Still, Putin seems aware of the mounting threat: In his state of the nation address last week, he promised higher living standards by strengthening various social services, from infrastructure to health care. As he prepares to enter his fourth term, the worrying signs for him are coming from those he has long counted on. It’s their defection, says Miller, that would be “a real risk for the regime.”