Restless Russia: Kremlin Bracing for Spring of Discontent?


Predicting a coming Russian revolution has been a favorite hobby of Russia watchers for years now. But since President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the doomsaying has intensified, as plunging oil prices and Western economic sanctions wreak havoc on the Russian economy, analyst Owen Matthews writes for Newsweek:

Yet even though the ruble has lost over half its value, inflation has risen from 5 percent to 16 percent and Russians’ purchasing power has dropped to 1990s levels, Putin’s approval ratings have so far remained close to a near-miraculous 80 percent thanks to a heady mix of military adventures and a barrage of patriotic propaganda. There are gathering signs, though, that the Kremlin is bracing for a possible end to this period of national togetherness and is preparing for a possible wave of unrest.

“If 2014 was the year that Russia went rogue, 2015 was the year that the costs of that course became manifest for Russians,” wrote Brian Whitmore recently on Radio Liberty’s influential Power Vertical Blog. “And next year should be when we learn whether Vladimir Putin’s regime will be able to bear those costs.”

“A revolution in Russia is inevitable,” says former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

So far, the Kremlin has kept discontent at bay with the age-old expedient of providing a steady diet of enemies to blame for Russia’s problems—the Americans, the Ukrainians and now the Turks, Matthews adds:

Three-quarters of Russians still blame the West for their economic woes, according to a recent study by the Institute of Sociology, part of Russia’s Academy of Sciences—but the authors warned that within a year to 18 months this collective delusion will probably wear off, and people could begin to blame their rulers instead. Sixty percent of respondents reported that their standard of living had declined over the last year, and just 38 percent said they were willing to “make further sacrifices to defeat Russia’s enemies.”

The fact that the Kremlin’s racist and scatological propaganda campaign is working is attributable to several factors, argue Paula J. Dobriansky, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and constitutional lawyer David B. Rivkin Jr.:

First, the Kremlin controls the news and entertainment media. Journalists who have refused to toe the official line have been fired, jailed or killed. This state monopoly, particularly when combined with the palpable failure by the West to communicate effective rebuttals to Russian audiences, has enabled the regime to mold Russian perceptions on every major policy issue.

Second, these propaganda themes skillfully capitalize on nostalgia felt by the Russian people about Moscow’s imperial past, which is often perceived in a highly idealized light. The repression of the Soviet and Czarist periods has been played down, and a key related theme is that Russia has always been the victim of foreign machinations and intrigue.

Disputing the Russian authorities claims that the worst of the economic crisis is over, analyst Vladimir Milov highlights the main driving factor behind the current crisis, the sharp decline of domestic consumption, unprecedented in the past twenty years, and argues that Western sanctions have had a great role to play in these developments.

Should Putin face a severe domestic backlash driven by the current economic difficulties, it is reasonable to expect two scenarios, he writes for the Brussels-based Martens Center: (1) intensified foreign policy–related mobilisation to hide the implications of the crisis (this is a separate topic for analysis, such mobilisation is not likely), and (2) a refocus on domestic issues to secure Putin’s position in power and, as a result, significant withdrawal from aggressive international behavior.

But for the Kremlin to truly stifle any chance of unrest once and for all, Russia would have to become prosperous again, notes Milov, a Russian opposition politician, publicist, economist & energy expert:

In an era of low oil prices, that would mean becoming competitive—which would require the state to create a functioning and fair judicial system and suppress the predatory instincts of the bureaucratic and securocratic class. But that would mean dismantling the very basis of the kleptocratic system that Putin has built. So the Russian president is left with two basic tools: repression and patriotic fervor. They have served him well so far. The question is whether the Russian people will continue to believe the television after the refrigerators stand empty.

Putin’s propaganda campaign also bespeaks of certain desperation, Dobriansky – a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy – and Rivkin write for The Washington Post:

The Russian economy is in free fall, buffeted by both falling oil prices and Western sanctions. Fuel shortages and the resulting disruption of deliveries of key commodities pose a particular challenge to the Kremlin. Corruption and mismanagement are rampant and have drawn the ire of the Russian people.

There is widespread labor unrest in cities where private-sector workers have not been paid for months at a time. There also have been months of strikes by long-distance truckers protesting extortionist road fees and corruption.  

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