Russians are not happy with widespread corruption
In March 2017, massive anti-corruption protests in Russia raised many eyebrows among those in the West who thought that Russian domestic politics nowadays was essentially summped up in one headline about Vladimir Putin’s 80% popularity ratings. The contrast with conventional wisdom was even starker if the protests are compared with much bleaker demonstrations celebrating the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, which took place exactly a week before the anti-corruption rallies. In many cities and regions, turnout at the pro-Crimea rallies was much lower, a lot of state-funded employees were clearly there out of a sense of duty, and these staged “patriotic” shows didn’t feature even a fraction of the general enthusiasm demonstrated a week later by the opposition protests.
So, do these protests signify a change of dynamics in Russian domestic politics, which previously seemed boring and unilaterally dominated by Putin? As a matter of fact, yes.
For those familiar with the Russian situation on the ground and in the regions beyond simple conventional headline knowledge, it was obvious that the mood of protest was brewing for quite some time. Yes, polls showed Putin’s popularity as being over 80%. But the same polls, if one simply looks just a bit deeper, also demonstrated that the situation is much more complex.
Even these polls, if broken down by type of attitude towards Putin, showed that his diehard fans number only about 10–15%. Many observers extrapolated the 80% support as full and total approval of everything Putin does; however, this was never the case, and the majority of people saying that they approved of Putin generally qualified their attitude by adding that “they simply see no alternative”, “we can’t afford chaos if he leaves” and other notions suggesting that this marriage was definitely not about love. Detailed polling shows that people view Putin not even as a specific personality, but rather an institutional element, the removal of which might risk driving the country into chaos and disorder—a prospect with which official propaganda has been scaring Russians for years.
All other elements of power—the prime minister, the government, the parliament, the ruling “United Russia” party, regional governors—have demonstrated levels of support much weaker than those of Putin, and steadily in decline over time. For most of these elements, their disapproval ratings surpassed their support during the past year, entering the red zone of net unfavourable ratings. Some influential incumbent regional mayors, and even governors representing the ruling party, have been voted out in the last two or three years.
Polls asking Russians about their attitude to specific government policies have identified that almost every (!) element of official social and economic policy is viewed with strong disfavour. Here we have another example of “Putin’s paradox”: Russians support him, but oppose nearly every one of his specific policies. The only sphere of policy that is viewed positively is foreign policy—people believe that Putin “strengthened Russia’s position in the world”, but at the same time, this is an issue on the periphery of people’s concern, and is mostly viewed as some sort of TV reality show rather than something that impacts people’s daily lives. Interest in foreign policy has recently been fading rapidly, with about 70% or more of Russians saying that they are not interested in events in Ukraine and Syria and are not really following them, despite heavy media coverage on a daily basis.
Large numbers of people confirm that they want the Russian system to be more open and competitive, and that they are unhappy with corruption, growing inequality and the fact that the same old faces hold power for many years at the federal, regional and local level without rotation. Many Russians are angry that they have no influence on political decisions; this is often amplified by outrageous selfishness on the part of regional and local authorities, which often promote unpopular, costly, environment-damaging decisions in the interests of their cronies, sparking multiple local-level social protests across the country. These protests have huge potential to be converted into political demands, and often are.
I outlined these trends with specific links to polling data in my publication “From Disapproval to Change? Russia’s Population May Surprise Putin at the Next Elections”, released by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in June 2016.1 However, I was wrong to predict that these trends would culminate at the September 2016 elections to the State Duma, which failed to attract the voters’ interest. (For the first time in Russian history, turnout at federal-level elections fell below 50%; previously it was never lower than 60%.) But the negative trends for Putin have found their way to the surface nonetheless.
Even those State Duma elections showed that Putin has big problems in the country. The ruling party’s vote fell by nearly four million compared to the previous elections in 2011; for the first time, about a third of votes for United Russia were “cast” by just a handful of regions where voting is totally controlled by authorities and the results essentially drawn up (North Caucasus and Volga ethnic republics, Kemerovo, Crimea). Without these votes, “United Russia” received fewer than 20 million votes in the rest of Russia, out of a total 98 million registered voters (110 million overall, if the abovementioned ethnic republics are included). This was party’s worst result in more than a decade; only low turnout—which the authorities specifically tried to achieve, by moving the elections from December closer to the summer vacation season—helped it to stay afloat. In about 20 major Russian regions—starting from Moscow and St. Petersburg, but including many regions of the Russian north-west, the Urals, Siberia and Far East—the ruling party received less than 40% of the vote, which indicates the rapidly growing polarisation in voting patterns between urbanised industrial ethnic Russian regions and national minority republics.
Remarkably, in Crimea voter turnout in September 2016 was just below 49%, with “United Russia” receiving the support of 38% of the total number of registered voters—far from the propaganda headline “97% support” mark. In Sevastopol, Russia’s traditional ethnic and military stronghold, the party’s official result was just 53.8%. People in Crimea do not seem too happy with the way annexation changed their lives.
What missed out in these State Duma elections was an energetic new generation of opposition politicians. Traditional, elderly democratic parties, Yabloko and Parnas, did their best to keep a new, charismatic generation out of their teams of candidates and, as a result, failed to attract significant voter attention despite relatively relaxed campaign conditions. (Their ads were widely distributed, their leaders were even allowed to be shown on national TV, and they had relatively significant campaign funds by Russian standards.) The persistence of the elderly generation of democratic politicians in promoting their own personalities and their reluctance to give way to a fresher cohort certainly cost the opposition an opportunity to form a faction in the Russian parliament this time around.
But the new generation of Russian opposition politicians, best represented by anti-corruption fighter Alexei Navalny, has still managed to find its way into the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Several long-term efforts have finally started to bear fruit. First, Navalny and his team have excelled in using social media as a platform to spread their ideas. This was no easy task to achieve: it took Navalny about ten years to expand his platform to the current two million followers on Twitter and millions of views of his videos on YouTube. But right now, he holds a media power that no opposition force in Russia has ever possessed before: his audience is bigger than that of most independent Russian media outlets, and at times comparable with that of the federal state media. Second, Navalny has formally announced his intention to run in the 2018 presidential election and is spending months extensively touring Russian regions, reaching the grassroots and sparking much enthusiasm on the ground. It’s very good that the new generation of politicians is no longer so Moscow-centric, and goes out into the field where people begin to really demand change.
Remarkably, the anti-corruption rallies on 26 March were held in about 100 cities—an unprecedented number by Russian standards, given the sizable turnout in most of the cities involved.
The authorities are suddenly confused as to what comes next. Even if they do not allow Alexei Navalny into the 2018 presidential race, the growing grassroots protest movement across the country will not go away, and an election ban on Navalny would only spark more anger. Navalny’s campaign is gaining momentum by the day and attracts even more people who were previously apolitical; it seems that he has managed to find the “pain spot” in society which is really fed up with obscene corruption and cronyism (the rallies of 26 March were themselves in protest against the government’s total silence over serious allegations of corruption against PM Dmitry Medvedev). And if Navalny is let into the race, a real prospect emerges of a run-off, something that Russia has not seen since 1996. A run-off means a lot for Putin’s rule in psychological terms: it is mathematical proof that a majority of voters prefer somebody else to take his job.
Whichever way this situation goes, Russian politics has suddenly ceased being boring, the opposition knows what it’s doing, and the momentum is not on Putin’s side. All of a sudden, he’s on the defensive—can you imagine that? So much so that even Putin’s traditional annual live television phone-in with Russians has been postponed, along with some other important domestic political appearances. After three sleepy post-Crimea years, Russia is clearly becoming the place to watch once again.