The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board.
On January 17, 2021, Moscow authorities swiftly arrested Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny for “parole violation” upon his return to Russia, sparking a nationwide uproar that culminated in protests across 109 Russian cities and eleven time zones. The arrest follows Navalny’s half-year hiatus from anti-Putin activism as he recovered from a possibly deadly medical emergency in Germany following an assassination attempt spearheaded by Russian president Vladimir Putin. However, while Russia’s most recent — and perhaps most egregious — dissident crackdown since the Brezhnev era of the USSR is a key factor of the protestors’ outrage, it is far from the citizens’ sole grievance. The poisoning and arrest only catalyzed the expression of nationwide fatigue from the dichotomy of Putin’s ever-expanding autocratic tendencies alongside crippling economic stagnation.
Artyom Prokhorov, one of many Muscovites who protested following Navalny’s arrest, bluntly quipped, “we don’t get involved in politics, and [the government gives] us the opportunity to earn … and we will close our eyes to [Putin’s] stealing,” lamenting the harsh realities of Russian life. Since the inception of Putin’s presidency in 2000, Russian politics has relied on precisely the aforementioned social contract between the Kremlin and citizens. All three of these conditions have defined Russia’s social order for the past 20 years: Putin’s United Russia party has maintained a stranglehold on the Russian political landscape through the ballot-stuffing of presidential and Duma (the Russian legislature) elections, the requirement that Putin hand-pick regional governors, and the ruthless conquest of statewide media to mitigate the spread of dissent. High oil prices sparked massive Russian GDP expansion in the 2000s, with annual growth usually hovering between 4-10%, whereas the previous decade saw yearly GDP decline under former president Boris Yeltsin. And, as for Putin’s theft, Russia is notorious for its state-sponsored economic corruption, from the seizure of prized oil conglomerates from Yeltsin-era oligarchs to the siphoning of one billion rubles from public works projects to state politicians — Putin’s allies. Despite the woes of tyranny, this social contract worked wonders for Russia’s economy and morale, with Putin’s (manipulated) approval ratings generally hovering around 75% throughout the decade.
Whereas this social contract proved itself sustainable throughout Russia’s expansion period, it has become increasingly difficult to justify as the state fails to hold up its end of the bargain. Since 2013, GDP growth has never exceeded 2 percent. Oil prices haven’t even approached their 2009 apogee in seven years. The Russia-Saudi oil price war of spring 2020 amplified this issue with a supply shock of Russian oil that tanked prices, which analysts believe won’t fully recover for years. The Russian and Saudi blunder exacerbated the already devastating economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on Russia, which resulted in 10 percent lower average disposable incomes than the nation enjoyed in 2013. And in perhaps his most unpopular decision, Putin raised the retirement/pension age by five years for both men and women in 2018, to public dismay. In the aftermath of this last decision, Putin’s approval ratings sunk to a near all-time low of 63 percent and haven’t recovered to date, which is quite pathetic for a dictator who controls the media. As these statistics demonstrate both Russia’s economic struggles and the public’s irate response to said events, it seems impossible to separate the economic stimulants from the protests.
As for those who insist that the protests are exclusively in response to the brutalities against Navalny and his fellow dissidents, there’s no reason protests of this scale wouldn’t have consolidated sooner. After all, Navalny is far from the first critic that Putin has tried to assassinate. Two FSB (Russia’s secret-service KGB successor) agents poisoned notorious dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, who perished quickly as a result, and two other FSB men poisoned British double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a Novichok nerve agent (eerily similar to the Navalny poisoning) in 2018. Even Navalny himself had been poisoned once prior in a Moscow prison. In other words, it is empirically false that most Russians were uniquely shocked and appalled by Putin’s actions of the past year.
So, is Putinism on the brink of demise? As long as Putin lives, the answer is a resounding no. In the early 2000s whilst consolidating his power, Putin focused much of his energy on rewarding his KGB loyalists and eliminating prospective and established rivals. He most famously arrested oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky on trumped-up charges in 2003 as he vied to win Duma influence from United Russia, and subsequently seized his prized Gazprom oil conglomerate and spread the spoils (aka company shares) amongst his allies. Putin has acted similarly with other oligarchs, dismantling their media influence and consolidating the sources of their wealth under his own political machine. As a result of Putin’s unmediated control over Russia’s most lucrative institutions, almost any wealthy Russian’s net worth can be attributed directly to Putin’s approval. Coupled with Putin’s unwavering control over statewide media, the demonstrated reliance on Putin for meaningful wealth demonstrates that dissent at a meaningful level would result in both economic and political ruin for the dissident, if not jail time on concocted tax fraud charges. Nearly all wealthy and influential Russians are unconditionally glued to Putin for their retention of power, as his demise would foreshadow their own.
While Putin himself is the benefactor of the Russian elite, the powers of the “presidency” itself ring much hollower than his influence would suggest. When Putin stepped down in 2008 to comply with the constitutional two-consecutive-term limit, he controlled his successor Dmitry Medvedev with the dominance of a puppet master before running for the seat again in 2012. He won in a landslide. Without Putin, Russia’s political climate may implode into a bona-fide power vacuum. Even with a power vacuum, liberalization is highly unlikely in the case of such an event; Russia’s disastrous democratic experiment of the 1990s might dissuade the population from the ideology even if enabled by a power vacuum and Navalny’s status as the most popular anti-Putin politician. It’s much safer to anticipate that United Russia will groom a replacement to maintain and reinforce the dominance of Putin-loyalist elites financially and in the public sphere.
Despite Putin’s weakest approval ratings since his ascension to the presidency, his status as the media-proclaimed savior and face of 21st century Russia still earns him adoration from millions of Russians. Even some who loathe him struggle to envision a Putin-less nation; he’s intertwined his identity with that of the state, and the two have become inseparable. A new tyrant would face the same stagnant economy and similar distaste as did his predecessor, sans the tenure and legitimacy to show for it. Will the plight of the protestors ring louder without any pro-Putin backlash to drown out the noise? Amidst the pressure, will Putin loyalists foster the same unconditional enthusiasm and protection of their new autocrat?
It makes sense that the elites who have backed Putin will fear ramifications for their decades of authoritarian enablement enough to ensure the appointment of a Putinesque figure to prevent the country from resorting to democratic law. In the most likely scenario, they will rapidly consolidate around the new leader to strive to maintain their influence. But the concatenation of Russia’s economic crisis and Navalny’s imprisonment as a rallying cry exposed how out-of-touch United Russia has become with its population. Thus, there could still be hope for democractic rule as there will most likely exist a window of opportunity in which Putin’s successor hasn’t yet established a hegemony over the elites. In such a scenario, a handful of powerful, democratic-minded figures, who had previously backed Putin, could seize the unprecedented opportunity to dissent and support a democratic opposition like Navalny in order to save face or perhaps mitigate their risk of imprisonment. Although the incentive for such a risk isn’t wholly clear, one advantage of the removal of an autocrat in favor of a democractic government would be the freeing of elites’ wealth for their own purposes, without being forced to spend on party expenditures or other unwanted political projects, as are highly common under the Putin regime. However, Russia has a notoriously convoluted history, so I am not one to predict its future with confidence. Nonetheless, if ever there is a time for Russia to once again experiment with liberalization, the transfer of power will be the prime opportunity.