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