Rest­less in Rus­sia

As the coun­try’s econ­omy goes from bad to worse, the Krem­lin pre­pares for a sea­son of pos­si­ble un­rest

Newsweek - - NEWS -

PRE­DICT­ING a com­ing Rus­sian revo­lu­tion has been a fa­vorite hobby of Rus­sia watch­ers for years now. But since Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in March 2014, the doom­say­ing has in­ten­si­fied, as plung­ing oil prices and Western eco­nomic sanc­tions wreak havoc on the Rus­sian econ­omy. Yet even though the ru­ble has lost over half its value, in­fla­tion has risen from 5 per­cent to 16 per­cent and Rus­sians’ pur­chas­ing power has dropped to 1990s lev­els, Putin’s ap­proval rat­ings have so far re­mained close to a near-mirac­u­lous 80 per­cent thanks to a heady mix of mil­i­tary ad­ven­tures and a bar­rage of pa­tri­otic pro­pa­ganda.

There are signs, though, that the Krem­lin is bracing for a pos­si­ble end to this pe­riod of na­tional to­geth­er­ness and is preparing for a pos­si­ble wave of un­rest. “If 2014 was the year that Rus­sia went rogue, 2015 was the year that the costs of that course be­came man­i­fest,” wrote Brian Whit­more re­cently on U.s.-funded Ra­dio Lib­erty’s in­flu­en­tial The Power Ver­ti­cal blog. “And next year should be when we learn whether Vladimir Putin’s regime will be able to bear those costs.”

In De­cem­ber, the Rus­sian Duma rushed through a bill that al­lows state se­cu­rity of­fi­cers to shoot at women (ex­cept, bizarrely, if they “ap­pear preg­nant”), chil­dren and dis­abled peo­ple “in cases of a terror act or armed at­tack.” The law also hands the of­fi­cers the right to en­ter pri­vate property to “main­tain pub­lic se­cu­rity in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions and dur­ing mass civil un­rest.” The OMON riot po­lice, de­ployed in the tens of thou­sands dur­ing mass protests against Putin’s re­turn to the pres­i­dency in 2011, has seen its bud­get ring-fenced, while the rest of the po­lice down­sizes by 10 per­cent. At the same time, Rus­sia’s In­te­rior Min­istry has quin­tu­pled its or­der of a brand-new version of the RGS-50M grenade launcher, which was de­signed dur­ing the dy­ing days of the Soviet regime in 1989 to fire tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets. “They are cheap to pro­duce and ef­fec­tive to use,” an en­thu­si­as­tic spokesman for the Degt­yarev fac­tory told the Rus­sian news agency TASS, which ran the story promi­nently.

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