Putin's Core Support Begins to Waver

Working-class Russians hurt by recession look for someone to blame—in an election year.

Putin in Two Minutes: A Quick Look Into His Soul

Russia embarks on an almost two-year-long election season this summer that ends with a presidential contest in 2018. But unlike previous years, the country's faltering economy has taken its toll on lower-income voters who blame the Duma and the cabinet for their plight. 

Five years ago, allegations of vote rigging led to the biggest antigovernment protests since Vladimir Putin’s ascent—dozens of opposition activists and leaders were jailed. The current election cycle comes amid an economic crisis caused in large part by earlier declines in oil prices, Russia's key export. The recession has left many employers cash-strapped, sending workers into the streets to protest unpaid wages and reduced working hours. The Center for Economic & Political Reforms, a think-tank close to the Russian Communist Party, reports an almost twofold increase in protests in March compared with previous months, a steep rise since last year.

Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin.

Photographer: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

In 2011, reform-minded urban elites bridling under Putin were in the vanguard. This year, a broader, poorer demographic is expressing dissatisfaction, recent polls show. Although those surveyed said they're largely predisposed against protesting, demonstrations are beginning to spread beyond the cities. CEPR head Nikolay Mironov said this may only be the beginning, and that the possibility exists for protests to reach “a magnitude of those we saw in the late 1980s.” 

Mironov said many of today's protesters, unlike those of the last election, long for the paternalistic Soviet state. Their loyalty to Putin, 63, is being tested because the economic crisis is undercutting his main selling point—security and growth.

“They have felt a shock that destroyed the idea of stability which used to cement the government’s support base,” Mironov said. Left unaddressed, he warned, the protest movement could become a serious political threat to Putin.

One-two punch

While Putin himself still enjoys an extremely high approval rating (a tremendous 80 percent), that number has fallen slightly of late. Annexing Crimea in 2014 helped build support at home, as did the subsequent Western sanctions that allowed him to shift blame for economic hardship. While inflation has receded this year and oil prices rebounded somewhat, the one-two punch of sanctions and an oil glut did enough damage that Russians are looking to blame someone closer to home. Putin's lieutenants in the Duma are facing the brunt of that dissatisfaction. 

The Levada Center research company's March survey of 1,500 Russians illustrated that, for the first time in years, the majority of Russians disapprove of the parliament's performance. The Duma's approval rating fell to 42 percent in March from 56 percent in September 2014. Those who believe the country is moving in the right direction dropped to 49 percent, while 33 percent now say Russia is definitely moving in the wrong direction.

Overall support for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet is now evenly split, down from 60 percent two years ago. The Russian Public Opinion Foundation, or FOM, gave similar results: In its survey of 1,500 people last month, support for Putin, Medvedev, and their United Russia party fell about 7 percent compared with a year ago. 

And just in case there was some misunderstanding, 82 percent agreed there's an economic crisis, and most said it's going to be a long one. 

Carrot and Stick

Perhaps in recognition of the shifting landscape, Putin's government has taken preemptive measures. In March, as poll numbers began to shift, he replaced the old election chief, Vladimir Churov, a popular target of liberal protests in 2011, with Ella Pamfilova, a former pro-democracy politician who served as Russia’s ombudsman for the past two years. She now presides over the implementation of reforms unveiled in February 2014 that were aimed at encouraging opposition participation. In a June 4 interview with Interfax, Pamfilova, 62, said Russians from both sides of the political divide "fully sensed manipulations in the election process" in the last election cycle and that she "will not allow that to happen" this time.

Ella Pamfilova.

Ella Pamfilova.

Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

“They want the elections to appear as legitimate as possible, because they are afraid of economic protests merging with political ones,” said Dmitry Gudkov, an independent member of parliament. Aleksandr Kynev, a political scientist, said the reforms are about keeping up appearances: Putin's government, he said, has also prepared for the election in a different way—by adopting laws that further restrict voting observers and make it easier to expel elected deputies from parliament.

A new law enacted in February requires that independent monitors register with a specific polling station three days in advance, allowing the government to determine which locations will have observers. And in the Duma, a new law was passed last month that will allow the majority to eject members who miss sessions or fail to meet with voters.

United Russia Supreme Council member Dmitry Orlov said the changes are in no way decorative: “The authorities are more than anyone else interested in making this election legitimate, they want genuine public opinion leaders to get elected.” He promised that this would be achieved through competition, not political pressure. “It will be a completely different election compared with 2011,” he said. Pamfilova agreed, pledging in her interview to do “everything we can to avoid ghastly violations that took people to the streets in the last election season.” 

Kynev, the political scientist, isn't so sure, calling the pre-election maneuvering a "carrot-and-stick" strategy.

Election Reforms

In February 2014, the Russian election system was changed to enable half of the Duma's members to be elected in single-seat constituencies, districts where voters choose a deputy from a list of individuals. The other half is elected from party lists in a nationwide constituency. The reform enabled individual opposition leaders to get elected in places where support is strong, primarily urban centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. But Orlov contends single-seat districts will help his ruling party compensate for potential losses in the party-line votes: “This is where the opposition will get the severest blow.” His party may still have reason to worry, however, seeing as a Levada poll last month showed a one-month drop of 7 percent in United Russia support, now at 35 percent.

Federation Council Senator Oleg Morozov, a former aide to Putin, has said the reforms were meant to engage Russians who have become cynical about political institutions. Liberal opposition parties that supported demonstrations in the last election have been absent from parliament for almost a decade. The current Duma includes United Russia and three other parties that support the Kremlin on key issues, especially foreign policy. But one of them, the Communist Party, has put some distance between itself and Putin: Their leader in Moscow, Valery Rashkin, recently employed the anticorruption rhetoric used by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition politician, in a harshly worded critique of the government.

Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny hold a rally at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow, on Dec. 30, 2014.

Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny hold a rally at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow on Dec. 30, 2014.

Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The new election system gives a chance to nonaffiliated opposition politicians, particularly in Moscow, where anti-Putin sentiment is strong. Gudkov, the independent member of parliament, said he feels confident running in one of these constituencies. Parnas, the party of the late liberal politician Boris Nemtsov (he was assassinated last year in Moscow), and Yabloko, the only liberal party that ran in the previous election, have been allowed to participate in  the upcoming cycle. But authorities have refused to register other parties, including the Party of Progress and the 5th December Party, associated with Navalny. (Parnas meanwhile suffered significant damage last month after a government-owned television channel showed a sex tape purported to involve party officials.) 

Testing the Waters

Days after Churov was replaced by Pamfilova as election chief, opposition activists associated with Navalny were testing the new rules by running in local elections. They started in Barvikha, a town of 6,000 known as Russia's golden mile, where the country’s rich and powerful reside in heavily guarded, gated communities. (Putin lives there, too.)  “We just couldn’t resist staying away from elections in the area that’s so full of our favorite characters,” said Ivan Zhdanov, the foundation’s lawyer and candidate for a seat on Barvikha's council.

Alexei Navalny.

Alexei Navalny.

Photographer: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Apart from luxury villas, Barvikha also has ramshackle Soviet-era apartment blocks filled with poorer residents. As he led a door-to-door campaign, Zhdanov said, people complained about illegal fencing of river banks and the destruction of forests by developers of luxury properties.

“Many have fond memories of President Yeltsin,” he said. “And they don’t like Putin.” The sentiment may reflect another specific finding in Levada's polls regarding corruption: Some 51 percent of those surveyed thought Putin might be abusing his power, while 59 percent hold him fully or largely responsible for widespread corruption in Russia.

The revamped election system didn't block the opposition candidates in Barvikha. But Zhdanov said he was later charged with dodging the military draft despite being too old (he's 27) and having never received a call-up. Government agents searched three homes associated with him, he said, confiscating documents and computers.

“I can’t fathom how that's related to draft dodging,” he said. As early voting began 10 days before the local election, several media outlets reported that a mini-bus began making regular sorties to a polling station in Zhdanov’s district, disgorging Central Asian laborers currently working in Russia. The number of early voters reached a third of the total turnout in the previous election, Zhdanov said.

The authorities denied allegations of rigging, but days before the results were due, Pamfilova canceled the election on the grounds the vote started too early. The Barvikha election commission was disbanded June 1.

Navalny’s activists contend the cancellation was a victory. But Irek Vildanov, who heads the Moscow region’s election commission, accused the opposition of using the contest as an excuse to create unrest during the Easter holidays. “The central electoral commission outplayed them brilliantly,” he said.

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