20 years under Putin: a timeline

The sky-high public approval ratings of Vladimir Putin and his policies raise serious concerns about the future of the nonsystemic opposition in Russia. According to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the more the Kremlin tightens the screws, the more opportunities there might appear for the opposition to increase strength.


According to various estimates, about 20,000 people went to the September 21 peace march in Moscow. The turnout exceeded the expectations of many political analysts. Photo: RIA Novosti.


A march for peace held in Moscow on September 21 exceeded the expectations of many political analysts. It was the second such rally held this year since the military conflict in Ukraine commenced. According to official numbers, the event drew a crowd of about 5,000 people who protested against Russia’s complicity in the Ukrainian conflict; however, unofficial estimates place the number of protesters between 10,000 and 50,000. Political analysts meet somewhere in the middle, estimating the number of people at 20,000. The latest public opinion polls indicate rising popularity ratings for Putin and overwhelming public approval of his government policies, which in turn raise the question of what the real political opposition can do against a background of drastically diminished political and media activities.

It is no secret that the opportunities enjoyed by the Russian opposition are quite limited. One of the latest examples of the seemingly diminished influence is the September 14 local elections in which none of the opposition candidates gained the necessary number of votes to take office. Following the 2011–2012 rallies, Kremlin authorities agreed to relax political party regulations, which consequently led to the emergence of small political parties and encouraged political competition. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the Kremlin has completely abandoned that tactic by now and is reviving the old system, which grants due political process only to government parties and opposition groups that are ready to compromise with the authorities.

Such a system precludes the active opposition from seizing any legitimate means of political influence. Alexei Navalny’s Progress Party confronted serious obstacles while trying to register its regional representative divisions. As of September 20, 35 offices had been registered, while over 150 had been denied by the Justice Ministry. “About two months ago, there was an avalanche of registration rejections. Moreover, they were all unfounded or bogus. I have a feeling that the country’s top authorities made a political decision to deny the registration of the Progress Party under any circumstances…and after that, to begin the process of dissolving the party as a whole because according to law, a party that failed to register a required number of representative offices must be removed as a legal entity,” said Vladimir Vorobyov, press secretary of the Progress Party’s St. Petersburg branch, in an interview with Radio Liberty this July. According to Dmitry Kraynov, secretary of the Progress Party’s Central Committee, the reasons given for the denial of the party’s registration were simply absurd. “In Samara we were told that we had no right to provide the passport data of the party founders in the registration application despite it clearly requesting passport information,” he said.

The opposition parties are also forced to carry out their activities in a hostile media environment. Presently, the Kremlin is actively exerting two major types of control over the mass media. One of them is prohibitive in nature, which means that the opposition is unable to obtain the official authorizations that it needs to carry out large-scale public events and thus is unable to receive broader coverage in the mass media. The majority of the leading media organizations and all federal television channels in Russia have so-called “stop lists,” which are lists of personae non grata who are banned from appearing or being mentioned in television and radio coverage. Some of the recent efforts to clean up media outlets include a set of new amendments to the media laws that would limit foreign ownership in Russia’s media market to 20 percent. These amendments directly threaten business-oriented print media such as Vedomosti and Forbes Russia, as well as many popular glossy magazines.

Putin’s high approval ratings are not indicative of the people’s support for his antidemocratic initiatives designed to curtail political participation. Undoubtedly, the right to peaceful assembly remains one of the essential privileges of the Russian people.

The second type of control the Kremlin wields over the mass media aims to discredit the opposition and portray its political rallies as isolated from the mainstream. For example, Russian authorities were allegedly behind many provocations that took place during the September peace march, as well as of many other political events. Russia’s Channel One news programs did not even mention the September peace march, while the event’s main slogan, “Against Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian military conflict” was followed by the disclaimer, “according to rally participants.”

Are political protests as isolated as the governing authorities seek to make the public believe? According to recent survey results from the Levada Center, the number of people supporting the opinion behind the peace march has not changed over the past six months, with 28 percent expressing disapproval of Russia’s complicity in the Ukrainian conflict this September compared to 29 percent expressing similar disapproval this March. This tendency reveals the potential for great momentum in opposition activity. Putin’s high approval ratings are not indicative of the people’s support for his antidemocratic initiatives designed to curtail political participation. Undoubtedly, the right to peaceful assembly remains one of the essential privileges of the Russian people. Only a minority of the people, however, seem to want to use this right.

What does the opposition movement have to do in these circumstances? The rallies in general and the September peace march in particular allow us to draw several rational conclusions. First, focusing on the ideas rather than the leaders is a more successful strategy, as was proved by the events of the 2011–2012 rallies. Despite the public’s lack of name recognition for the new opposition leaders and its expressed lack of trust for the liberal opposition leaders of the 1990s, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2011–2012 to protest multiple instances of electoral fraud during the parliamentary elections. Second, the support for the opposition of movie and music celebrities, famous journalists, human right activists, and other reputable public leaders helps to dispel the myth that such public assemblies are isolated from the mainstream. Third, it is extremely important to develop the infrastructure needed to launch public rallies, which includes the dynamic use of social media, the improvement of interactive platforms, and the participation of civil right activists and independent bloggers whose coverage can compete with that of the Kremlin-backed media outlets.

In spite of the existing draconian political and mass media restrictions, the opposition parties continue to exert influence on the country’s public life. Any noteworthy protests (with the peace march being one of the most important of this year) compel Kremlin authorities to impose protective measures, many of which are excessive and verge on absurd. Moreover, any of Russia’s foreign policy antics will have to be paid by the Russian people, which will inevitably diminish public approval of the Kremlin’s current party line. According to August poll results from the Levada Center, almost 70 percent of Russians were concerned about price increases, and 40 percent expressed anxiety about the country’s poverty rates. In the meantime, government blunders have opened a window of opportunity for opposition activists. At some point, the interests of the opposition parties and those of the pro-Putin majority will collide and ignite a political reckoning of life in Russia.