Is Putin really that popular and what is next after Nemtsov’s murder?

One of the biggest questions following the horrible murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov goes to the impact it will have on the Russian opposition. Will the tactic aimed at sowing fear among opposition politicians yield its results? Will the opposition be able to coordinate better in the new “wartime” reality? Will Russian society be more responsive to opposition ideas now?

Most knowledge of domestic Russian politics abroad is limited to the fact that Vladimir Putin’s popularity had jumped to record highs since the annexation of Crimea, and, according to opinion polls, stays around 85%. This creates a false impression that Putin’s leadership is unchallenged in the Russian politics, and leads to multiple “business as usual” projections for years to come as far as Russian political future is concerned.

However, the situation domestically in Russia is far more complex than what meets the eye and what Putin’s popularity measures suggest. Here are just the few examples that something is brewing under the calm surface of alleged 85% popularity:

  • According to opinion polls (for instance, a very recent Levada-Center poll), only around 55% of Russians want to see Putin elected President again in 2018. This is obviously far less than 85%, looking more like an unsustainable majority in front of serious economic troubles coming within the next couple of years. Around 30% of the interviewed Russians in that same poll clearly state that they want to see “another man” being elected President, and up to 20% do not just want another man in charge, but demand “a change of course”.
  • This clear example of “Putin fatigue” is supported by the data of previous opinion polls before the annexation of Crimea, when his Presidential rating had been hanging around just a little over 40% for 2-3 years in a row, reflecting the fact that the society obviously grew weary to see the same leader in charge for almost 15 years. As a matter of fact, at the end of his current Presidential term, Putin will turn out to stay in power longer than Leonid Brezhnev did, leaving him the only competitor within a century – Joseph Stalin.
  • Yes, Putin was able to boost his popularity again, but only through injecting a very strong drug into the body of society – the takeover of Crimea. But it is worth mentioning that the importance of Crimea annexation had dramatically faded in the public opinion over the past year, this issue seems to be far less important to the general public now than many other issues of the day. Putin, ironically, has greatly contributed to that fading momentum himself by replacing the news of the victorious and bloodless Crimea takeover atmosphere with the continuous coverage of long, bloody and perspective-lacking conflict in Donbass, which Russian people understand much less. There appears to be no other potential stories which may deliver the similar feeling of quick victory and success as Crimea did – i.e., after Crimea momentum completely fades away, there will be no new drug available to repeat the 2014 popularity-boosting exercise. Recent Levada-Center opinion poll shows that in February 2015 the number of people saying that “Russia is going in the right direction” have plunged 12% from the August 2014 peak, from 66% to 54% — a trend that just can’t be ignored.

There is more bad news for Putin — first, the economic crisis. According to most opinion polls, domestic economic troubles have clearly overtaken anything else as a major source of concern for Russian society for a few months already. No surprise: due to collapse of the ruble, the population’s real disposable income had plunged down by 5-7% year-on-year in November-December and remained in negative territory in January, when real wages were down by 8% year-on-year. For the first time since the 1990s, Russians had found themselves in a position of declining, not growing incomes – far worse than after the 2008 financial crisis, when, despite GDP contraction, the government had struggled its best to keep real incomes in positive territory. Most sensible economists predict that Russia is entering the period of several years of sizeable economic decline, which will hit incomes and wages the hardest: after blocked access to Western capital markets, which have been the main source of country’s growth (corporate foreign debt had skyrocketed from just around $100 billion in 2004 to a peak of nearly $700 billion by mid-2014), there’s simply no sufficient source of financing for the economy.

It is worth noting that the widely accepted view of Putin’s “social contract” with the Russian population over 15 years of his leadership was “better living standards in return for absolute power” – Russians willingly have surrendered their civil and political rights in return for growing incomes. Now, with incomes substantially down and no end in sight for economic turmoil, contract is clearly breached by the authorities. Yes, the latter will try to divert the blame, pointing the finger at America and NATO, but will Russians buy it? There’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever (save the loud outcry from very thin numbers of super-imperialists) that Russians would support a totally new social contract formula – “You will suffer, but Russia will be great”. Overwhelming evidence is available suggesting that Russians are not ready to suffer at all, neither for geopolitics nor for anything else, and the material well-being is undeniably on top of their primary concerns – you can hardly expect anything else after the previous “social contract”, based on the priority of improving living standards over anything else, is taking root. One recent Levada-Center opinion poll already shows that protest aspirations among Russians are back to pre-Crimea annexation levels.

Second: one should clearly distinguish between Putin’s personal popularity as a symbolic national leader, and obvious evidence that, despite maybe some sympathy for Putin, Russians have a totally different attitude to two other things: (a) they much less like Putin’s system (a highly monopolized political and economic environment tightly controlled by authorities and their cronies, with little ability for independent citizens and communities to make their voice heard or their interests being taken into account); and (b) they even less like many regional officials, often appointed to their posts and never being popularly elected, who are often extremely inefficient, corrupt, and tend to ignore the interests of their regional communities in favor of selfish business interests of their cronies and relatives.

So, Putin’s popularity foundation is very uneven: Russians may like the symbolic figure of their leader, but they like his system and his lieutenants much less. Example: just within the past year and a half, residents of the 3rd and 4th biggest cities of Russia respectively, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, had voted the incumbents out at city mayoral elections, choosing the opposition candidates – even despite all the election fraud! (A big hello to those arguing that “participation in Russian elections makes no sense”.) In Moscow, incumbent city mayor had missed a runoff in the mayoral elections by just 1% margin, and 30% of the voters have chosen candidates from parties not represented in the current rubber-stamp State Duma. In 2014 Moscow city parliamentary elections, only in 12 out of 45 districts candidates of the ruling “United Russia” party had won decisively; in most of the districts their results were quite weak, sometimes just over 30%, despite all the fraud – it is the split between the opposition forces that have prevented opposition from taking control over the Moscow city parliament, not the fraud.

Third, there is large evidence (reflected also in polling data) that positive attitude of Russians toward Putin is not unconditional: a healthy half of those who admit supporting him rank his performance as not superb but “more or less ok”, clearly indicating that they not thrilled with Putin as much as worried about the lack of alternative and afraid of possible post-Putin governance chaos (a factor official propaganda spares no effort in highlighting, playing a dominant role in Putin’s re-election in 2012), being careful about risking a change.

This “passive attitude” was visible when comparing two mass rallies that took place in Moscow in the recent weeks: a highly energetic and truly mass rally in memory and support of Boris Nemtsov on March 1st versus quite sluggish and formalistic “Antimaidan” rally a week earlier. From this comparison, it becomes clear that Putin’s opponents are much more resolved to take on the streets in protest, than his supporters are ready to defend their leader.

What effect would Nemtsov murder have?

Beyond doubt, there is a serious risk that large number of opposition-minded citizens would prefer to leave the country, after seeing a clear new level of risk. A number of prominent opposition leaders have already emigrated and prefer to blast Putin from a safe distance. So this is a crossroads for the Russian opposition now: will it be scared off enough to run away and give up, or will it be able to show resolve strong enough to continue Boris Nemtsov’s fight. It is no small talk: all of us can be the next target, we are approached by literally hundreds of people – friends, followers – who advise is to leave Russia immediately, for our safety’s sake.

However, we can’t do that. If we do, we will let Boris and his memory down. We have to stay and continue the fight. And the situation creates some tailwinds for us. First, there is a great momentum building up for the new wave of reconsolidation of remaining opposition forces to take on Putin in 2016-2018 federal elections. The way I see it, opposition have learned the lessons of 2011-2012 election and protest cycle, and hopefully there will be no more focus creative flashmobs or choosing the “best oppositioner” on the Internet – we need to get back to the grassroots work with masses of the population. The past three years have provided a healthy “natural selection” of those opposition parties and movements in terms of who is truly capable of working – and winning – in the real local and regional campaigns. If this dozen of parties will be able to for a viable coalition aimed at succeeding in the 2016 State Duma elections – particularly given the fact that Putin is restoring the system of electing 50% of Duma members through single-mandate districts, which gives advantage to local opposition-minded public opinion leaders – this may be a good replica of the 1990 success, when anti-Communist opposition was able to break into corridors of power through winning large number of seats in the Russian Soviet Republic parliamentary election.

I won’t be disclosing details about the ongoing negotiations between various opposition leaders following Nemtsov’s murder, but I can make a safe bet that quite soon we’ll be ready to announce the format and plans of this new coalition. Boris Nemtsov was aware and very actively participating in creating such a coalition aimed at Duma elections right before his death – which is one of the likely reasons he have been shot. His tragic death had only increased our resolve to make it happen.

And last but not least, Putin’s leadership is inevitably entering a big and lasting downward trend. The deep economic crisis unprecedented since collapse of the Soviet Union, the “Putin fatigue” explained above, and the disillusionment with highly monopolized crony system which Putin have build over years – these are the factors which lay out inevitable pattern of future decline of his popularity. Yes, he can try to counter that with new attempts of national mobilization, but there is absolutely no evidence that this has a chance to last. In fact, even the 2014 Crimea experience suggests that such mobilizations do not last long, and he has no other such fast “success story” in his pocket any more – any new affair will now be far more bloody and costly.

These two factors – the opposition’s resolve to create a viable political alternative to take on Putin in the upcoming elections, plus the new phase of downward trend for Putin which is about to begin – create some hope. No optimism – there’s little room for optimism left regarding the future given the new evidence of methods which incumbent authorities are ready to use defending their power, and we may yet see the continuation of this tragic chain. But there is hope – Russia is not surrendering to brutal dictatorship just yet.

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