20 years under Putin: a timeline

A new study published by the Center for Strategic Research concludes that protest sentiments in Russia are shifting from large cities to the provinces and are becoming more economic and social than political. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discusses the potential dangers for the Putin regime.



The findings of a preliminary new report by the Center for Strategic Research (CSR), a prominent Moscow think tank, suggest a significant shift in the social base of opposition to the Putin regime. Today, according to CSR head Mikhail Dmitriev, less educated and less wealthy people in the regions are much more likely to protest than are people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two cities at the heart of the anti-Putin protests in 2011–12. (A CSR study conducted two years ago predicted the earlier protest wave.) At the same time, approval ratings for Vladimir Putin have stabilized throughout the country, including in Moscow. “This is a schizophrenic situation,” Dmitriev told the press on July 11. “Putin is back as the anchor of stability again, but there are more and more people who are ready to protest.” These people evidently have little optimism about the future. “Our findings, which we cross-checked with other pollsters,” Dmitriev said, “show that society is very unstable.” (In the past, CSR has promoted former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin as an alternative to Putin in studies commissioned by Kudrin’s Civic Initiative Committee, of which Dmitriev is a member.)

The CSR study was based on a sample of 1,600 people, 32 focus groups, and the findings of psychological studies conducted in three cities with a population larger than one million people. Dmitriev noted that the report’s conclusions are provisional and the final version will be published after further analysis.

Economic rather than political grievances, according to Dmitriev, are now more likely to spur protest. (In 2012 alone, 33,000 protest actions took place around the country.) Sixty-three percent of respondents living in regional cities of more than one million residents say that they are ready to demonstrate if they are hit by an economic crisis. Among Russian respondents as a whole, 43 percent expressed the same sentiment. By contrast, only 15 percent of Moscow residents said they would take to the streets for economic reasons.

There are two key implications of Dmitriev’s findings. First, since many Russians see no alternative to Putin, future protests are likely to be the result of ethnic tensions, ecological concerns, or economic hardship rather than political grievances. In support of this conclusion, Dmitriev mentioned the recent protests in Pugachev and Voronezh, which were not overtly political. Second, when Dmitriev’s respondents in the provinces say they want more “democracy”—another finding of the report—they may be using the term as a way to show their desire to overcome their sense of social helplessness and defenselessness. These people do not necessarily share the political reform goals of the angry protestors of 2011–12 who still comprise the base of the opposition in Moscow. Given differences in values, income, and social background, therefore, it is unlikely that the more urban “creative class” will rush to the regions to form an alliance with the “provincials” in order to press for a comprehensive series of political reforms.

In Moscow, only 21 percent of residents stated that they would vote for Putin for president. The president’s showing in July was lower than it was in either January of this year (33 percent) or January 2012 (37 percent).

Dmitriev’s findings are contradicted, meanwhile, by the results of a recent survey by the respected Levada Center, also published in early July, which found that Russians are losing faith in the effectiveness of demonstrations. The Levada Center found that the number of Russians willing to participate in street protests has declined since a 2011 peak. Only 11 percent of respondents stated that they would rally for political protests, and only 16 percent stated that they would demonstrate for social issues. Unlike the results reported by Dmitriev, the Levada survey found that support for Putin has declined. In Moscow, only 21 percent of residents stated that they would vote for Putin for president, a percentage that reflects the capital’s weariness with politics in general and Putin in particular. The Russian president’s showing in this city in the July survey was lower than it was in either January of this year (33 percent) or January 2012 (37 percent). The Levada survey also found widespread disillusionment with the political elite. A separate Levada poll conducted in June comparing June 12 demonstrators to earlier protest participants suggests that protests in Moscow are also now dominated by a smaller, more radical, and more liberal anti-Putin core than was the case in 2011–12. This group is more willing to take part in future demonstrations, act as election observers, and create alternatives to existing power structures. Compared to the past, it has fewer members from the state-supported middle class and more from the private sector, with one-third expressing an inclination to emigrate.

Dmitriev argues that even though polls show a change in the protestors’ social composition and a lower number saying that they are prepared to protest, the wave of demonstrations in 2011–12 legitimized mass political action. He believes that the mix of social and economic factors that is brewing now will bring change by 2020: Putin’s rating is dropping, more people see him as responsible for what is happening, the economy is stagnating, and people are unhappy with social services. Dmitriev predicts that Putin’s rating is likely to continue to decline and that by the end of his six-year term, Putin will find himself in the same situation Boris Yeltsin faced at the end of the 1990s, with Putin having to invent a strategy for withdrawing from power and finding a successor as president. Dmitriev is likely too optimistic in this assessment, since even if the middle class grows, it may well buy into the Kremlin’s reactionary worldview.

For now, however, the regime’s strategy of separating the more moderate group (as well as the more nationalistic marchers) from the core of the liberal political opposition through a combination of political moves and repressions appears to have been successful. This could be a positive development, since the opposition is now composed of a more committed group that can better coordinate its actions. Alternatively, and more likely, this shift could merely reflect the isolation of a small minority from the larger, more moderate and conservative majority that is turned off by radicalism and is at least partly responsive to the Kremlin’s political strategy. In any case, both the Dmitriev and Levada reports suggest that it would take a major crisis, with both a social and an economic dimension, to spark protests large enough to make real trouble for the Kremlin. There will probably be local, sometimes significant, outbreaks of discontent, but over the short term, Russian society appears too atomized and weak to actually force a change of regimes.