Putin’s extraordinary approval ratings have become a constant in the multi-variable equations of Russian politics; it is quite possible that they would remain up in the 60% range even after the January protests. Analysts have long argued about the real value of this popularity and the possibilities of expending any approval ratings on advancing unpopular but inevitable reforms. Now it becomes clear that the only real opportunity behind these figures is for the perpetual recycling of the old Russian myth about the “kind Tsar” and the “evil boyars” (Ekho Moskvy, January 16). The latest exercise of this sort has been performed since mid-January in order to defuse the spontaneous protests of pensioners against meager financial compensations for canceling many of their habitual “privileges,” primarily free use of public transport (Kommersant, January 20).
These protests have been so disturbing for the Kremlin that the more aggressive commentators, sensing the Kremlin’s mood, have started to accuse “liberal” ministers, like German Gref and Alexei Kudrin, of “deliberate sabotage” (Ekho Moskvy, January 14). Putin himself, attending a cabinet meeting on January 17, put the blame more on the regional governors, subtly justifying his plan to abolish the system of their direct elections (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 18). It is nearly certain that by distributing some extra funds the government will succeed in calming down angry pensioners, but their demonstration may be only the tip of the iceberg of accumulating discontent. In just three weeks of this year, Putin’s team has managed to antagonize four different social groups that previously were firmly behind the regime.
Pensioners have been the most notably offended and their true feelings have been visible even in the news presented by state-run TV channels. It was not the money as such but perhaps more the official attitude towards them that explains this anger, since neither the president nor his prime minister bother to explain the need for, and the real content of, this reform, while the cost calculations were clearly aimed at minimizing spending.
The second group consists of students, who were directly threatened by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, one of Putin’s closest confidants. Abandoning the rhetoric about shifting to a “professional army,” Ivanov has demanded a change in legislation that would close all existing loopholes in the draft system (Ezhenedelnyi zhurnal, January 20). Alarmed by the first wave of protests spearheaded by the “irreconcilable” Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, Ivanov softened his stance and promised to return to the issue at the end of the year (Gazeta.ru, January 19). The students have been also hurt by the elimination of “privileges” and the prospect of marching towards some decrepit barracks as soon as this autumn might have sparked protests far more spectacular than a few hundred senior citizens blocking a highway.
The third group that feels increasingly alienated from the regime can be collectively called “professionals”: managers and entrepreneurs, experts, and lawyers who seek to establish themselves as Russia’s “middle class.” Their prime source of irritation has been the incompetent but arrogant interference of the special services in every aspect of public life. Indirect taxation by semi-official protective rackets has long become a norm in Russian business; the term krysha (roof) has even entered the international vocabulary. But since the start of Putin’s second term in office, his siloviki (literally, “power-guys” but also a self-explanatory term) has turned increasingly greedy. An important signal for the professionals, who sense that their expertise is becoming irrelevant and their careers stalled, was the article by Viktor Cherkesov, a high-ranking official and KGB veteran (Komsomolskaya pravda, December 29), where he spells out the “ideology” of the all-penetrating control of the special services (Ekho Moskvy, January 14).
The fourth disappointed group consists of commentators, PR consultants, and image-makers who are often called “political technologists.” Many of them, dispatched from Moscow to Kyiv last autumn, have suffered humiliating defeat in the Ukrainian presidential elections — and harbor a grudge against the Kremlin for letting them down so clumsily. More important, however, is the plain fact that Putin’s consistent course on reducing the public political space to absolute minimum (and discontinuing regional elections) has left them without meaningful employment. Marat Gelman, an influential figure in this group, organized an exhibition of political art with a strong anti-official flavor upon his return from Ukraine (Kommersant, January 20). A surprising number of these “new oppositionists” attended the presentation of Yegor Gaidar’s new book, Long Time: Russia in the World, which is rather critical of the prospects of the current economic and political course (Izvestiya, January 19).
It is hardly possible to expect that the activists from these groups will unite like proletariats of all countries in the old Communist slogan. But the erosion of a once solid and vast support base for Putin’s regime is unmistakable. It is not the fluctuation of his rating that matters most but rather the spreading popular perception that the country has deviated from the course of meaningful development and stumbled into a dead end (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 19). While Putin’s people are busy targeting every potential opposition leader, they are helpless against the growing resentment against them. Kyiv’s Orange Revolution likely cannot be replayed in Moscow, but in most Russian crises it took only a few thousand determined activists, rather than hundreds of thousand of cheerful students, to trigger a collapse in the vertical power structure.