Why protests keep Putin up at night


By all appearances, Russian President Vladimir Putin is at the height of his power. And by all accounts, he has full control over the Russian state apparatus, notes Stephen Crowley, a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Professor of Politics at Oberlin College. But Putin was clearly perturbed by recent anti-corruption protests, reflecting an uneasiness that can be attributed to three causes: the limits to authoritarianism; the particular threat posed to him by corruption allegations; and the challenge of maintaining his regime’s legitimacy under a stagnating economy, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

  • The first of these causes relates to a paradox at the heart of authoritarian power: in such a system, perceptions of a leader’s invincibility can change rather quickly. To date, there has never been a revolution in a liberal democracy. The most likely explanation is also the simplest one: in a liberal democracy, there is always hope that even a despised leader can be removed from office through constitutional means. But in authoritarian systems there is no procedure for the people to remove a leader except by revolution….
  • The second reason for Putin’s anxiety is that allegations of corruption—particularly credible allegations of vast corruption at the very top of the government—present a challenge to both the regime’s political legitimacy and the rulers’ pocketbooks. The March protests were prompted by a 50-minute video released by [opposition campaigner Alexei] Navalny [right] in February (above), which provided extensive documentation that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had accumulated over $1 billion in assets, including country estates, a Tuscan vineyard, and two yachts, despite his modest government salary. In addition to provoking public anger, the exposure of officials’ illicit wealth is deeply troubling to the Russian leadership since they operate in a system in which political power is the only real guarantor of property rights…
  • The third challenge to the Putin regime is Russia’s stagnating economy. Putin’s rise to power in 1999 coincided with an economic boom, with Russia’s GDP growing between 5 and 10 percent every year, the recession year of 2009 excluded. That boom ended in 2014 with the drop in global oil prices. Since then the economy has been limping along, and popular grievances are accumulating. When so many Russians are struggling to meet their basic needs, charges of ill-gotten wealth take on greater weight.

Since 2014, protests by workers over pocketbook issues have been increasing, including the latest truckers’ nationwide strike against an illegitimate road tax, but there is no sign of a looming color revolution in Russia, adds Crowley:

But for Putin and those around him, fear no doubt lurks alongside vast power. Having based his regime’s legitimacy on providing stability in contrast to the chaos of the 1990s, Putin could struggle as signs of past discord reappear. Indeed, his anxiety was evident in the government’s decision to downplay the centennial of the 1917 Russian Revolution, one of the most dramatic social insurrections of all time. Given the lack of transparent institutions to regulate state–society relations, the fear of losing wealth as well as power, and the growing grumbling over a stagnating economy, he must be aware that, should he lose his grip, the fall may be pretty steep indeed. RTWT

Putin is understandably wary of national commemorations highlighting 1917 for what it actually was – a short-lived, euphoric experiment in civil liberties, equal rights and democracy, says the University of Exeter’s Matthew Rendle. Instead the official “lesson” we seem destined to hear repeatedly this year is that revolution fosters violence and instability – and should be avoided at all cost, he writes for The Conversation.

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