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There’s Trouble Brewing in Putin’s Heartland

With oil prices down, discontent over the economy is growing.
Ulyanovsk, Russia.
Ulyanovsk, Russia.

Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

During Russia’s oil-fueled boom, Rashid Tamayev saw steady pay raises at his auto factory job, helping keep his family in relative comfort—and making him a loyal supporter of President Vladimir Putin. But since a plunge in oil prices three years ago, Tamayev has lost faith in the president. Last spring he and dozens of others at the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant lodged an appeal with the Kremlin when they were fired after pointing out safety problems. They got no answer. “Putin has forgotten about ordinary people,” Tamayev says as he watches workers from the factory leave after their shifts. “We used to live well.”

As Putin prepares to run for a fourth term in elections next March, the plight of his working-class base across the Russian heartland is emerging as a top domestic challenge. He’s almost certain to win, thanks to the Kremlin’s grip on the media and political life, but the discontent threatens Putin’s popularity as the economy continues to sputter. After the longest recession in his 17-year rule, real incomes have fallen 12 percent over the past three years, sparking protests in areas that provided solid backing for Putin in 2012. While demonstrations around the last elections were limited largely to Moscow, this year tens of thousands of people have marched in anti-Kremlin protests in dozens of cities. Russians “are losing patience,” Valery Fyodorov, the head of state-run pollster VTsIOM, said in August. “People don’t want stability anymore. They want change.”