The now-annual Russian naval parade in St. Petersburg—which has become a new tradition for the country—was held last Sunday (July 28). But a day earlier, an opposition rally was crudely suppressed in Moscow; and this non-event might turn out to be far more consequential for Russia than any ostentatious demonstrations of military might. Tensions in Moscow have been building for weeks as the authorities tried to impede and ban independent candidates from partaking in the municipal elections, scheduled for September 8. The verdict of the official electoral commission to disqualify all independents brought—to the surprise and dismay of the ruling elite—more than 20,000 people into the streets to protest on July 20 (RBC, July 25). Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin attempted to play the role of a benevolent leader committed to the beautification of the city. But following the July 20 mass demonstrations, Sobyanin’s office was sidelined by the alarmed Russian presidential administration (Meduza, July 26). Alexei Navalny, a leader of the opposition and the Kremlin’s greatest irritant because of his fierce anti-corruption campaign, was arrested last Wednesday. Moreover, in the course of multiple subsequent protest actions on Saturday, a total of 1,388 people were brutally detained at random (Novaya Gazeta, July 25).
The current political crisis perfectly exemplifies authoritarian overreaction to initially quite moderate popular discontent. It theoretically was perfectly possible for the Kremlin to allow a dozen or so independents to campaign and permit a few of those to be elected to sit in the Moscow Duma (Forbes.ru, July 26). But the Putinist system’s desire to fully nip the protests in the bud prevailed over countervailing calculations to let off some steam—thus underscoring the mutation of the ruling regime into a mature autocracy (Rosbalt, July 26). Every manifestation of dissent is seen at the top of the pyramid of power as a threat to the stability of this “natural” but, in fact, increasingly fragile construct (Moscow Echo, July 15). Decisive action in Moscow on exterminating all opposition may provide a working example for other regions—for instance Irkutsk, where the authorities have been widely blamed for mishandling the rescue and reconstruction work following devastating local flooding (Kommersant, July 23).
President Vladimir Putin tries to distance himself from these troublesome matters and made no mention of the growing discontent at a recent meeting with regional governors (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 21). He is certainly much more comfortable presiding over the pomp of the naval parade, which has received maximum spin in official propaganda (Krasnaya Zvezda, July 26). His administration, however, not only instructs subordinates to deter popular protests with tough countermeasures but also mobilizes gangs and online trolls sponsored by such shadowy characters as oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin (Newsru.com, July 24).
Foreign policy may provide a dignified occupation for Putin, but it brings him few successes. Russia’s initiative to build a “collective security” framework in the Gulf to replace the coalition led by the United States has already fallen perfectly flat (Kommersant, July 25). While, the first-ever joint patrol of Russian and Chinese strategic bombers flew into trouble with Japan and South Korea (see EDM, July 25), thus reminding Moscow of the risks inherent in entangling itself in the many territorial conflicts Beijing deliberately fans in the Asia-Pacific (Carnegie.ru, July 25). Putin has called for building yet stronger Russian strategic nuclear forces, meant to demonstrate Moscow’s readiness in the face of the breakdown of the arms control regime. But funding for this priority may only come at the expense of other—and seriously over-stretched—branches of the Armed Forces (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 25).
The Russian economy continues on its trajectory of shaky stagnation, and the 0.25 point cut of the basic interest rate (set now at 7.25) by the Central Bank cannot produce a meaningful stimulus (RBC, July 26). The decision to forcefully suppress the opposition is certain to have serious economic consequences, even as the deterioration of the investment climate reaches a new low (Moscow Echo, July 25). Nevertheless, the attitudes of Western investors matter little for policymaking in the Kremlin, and the official branding of the Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council as an “undesirable organization” confirms this stance (Forbes.ru, July 25). Disinvestment cannot be compensated for by channeling state funds into “national projects” that serve mostly as enrichment opportunities for corrupt bureaucrats (Open Media, July 9). Macro-economic statistics can be doctored, but people’s continually shrinking incomes cannot be so easily explained away.
Discontent with the protracted decline in living standards has been building for a long time, but Putin preferred to ignore it, much like the forest fires that engulfed Siberia this summer and were left to burn themselves out (Meduza, July 24). Thousands of Muscovites chanted, “Go fight the fires!” to the thousands of riot police mobilized to suppress the “unauthorized” rally (Novaya Gazeta, July 28). The heavily armed regime has found itself in a trap: “moderate” repressions no longer instill effective fear in the excited youth and angry pensioners, but an escalation of forceful punishment could multiply the ranks of the opposition. So far, the numbers of protesters in Moscow have been perhaps ten times lower than in Hong Kong (Moscow Echo, July 28). Yet, the deliberate abuse of force could arouse indignation in hundreds of thousands of additional Russians, who are already unhappy with the economic situation but have so far been reluctant to join the political rallies (Novye Izvestiya, July 27). Opinion polls from early June suggested that only 22–25 percent of Russians were prepared to join protests. But if by the time of the September elections as few as 5 percent of Muscovites come out into the streets, even the full mobilization of the National Guard (Rosgvardiya) forces will fail to contain the half-million-strong crowd (Levada.ru, June 4).
The contrast between Putin’s reliance on propaganda and military force on the one hand and public disappointment in these priorities on the other came into a sharp focus over the weekend. Putin perhaps assumed that, by helping the Bashar a-Assad regime crush the Syrian rebels, he would turn back the tide of revolutions. But instead, he has come to discover how the strong demand for change in Ukraine has brought to power a youthful president and an energized parliament. Putin’s courtiers probably understand that the protesters in Moscow—despite the generous application of police batons—gained a psychological victory and captured the moral high ground. A compromise could have discharged the crisis, but the Kremlin is too afraid to show weakness—and may turn out to be too corrupt to exercise force.