Protests, break­downs mar Putin mile­stone Pop­u­lar­ity low af­ter 20 years in power

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY MARC BENNETTS

MOSCOW | Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin is mark­ing 20 years in power, but the cel­e­bra­tions are de­cid­edly muted.

That’s be­cause the once high-rid­ing former KGB in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer is deal­ing with a sharp slump in polls, a fa­tal ac­ci­dent in one of the mil­i­tary’s prize pro­grams and — when he looks out his win­dow at the Krem­lin — the largest op­po­si­tion protests in al­most a decade.

Up to 60,000 pro­test­ers ral­lied in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal on Aug. 10, ac­cord­ing to an in­de­pen­dent mon­i­tor­ing group. It was the fifth straight week­end that the in­vig­o­rated pro-democ­racy move­ment had protested in Moscow to de­mand that op­po­si­tion can­di­dates be al­lowed to run in elec­tions for the city leg­is­la­ture Sept. 8.

“Putin is a thief,” pro­test­ers chanted as they flooded Sakharov Av­enue un­der the watch­ful eyes of thou­sands of riot po­lice and troops in body ar­mor. The main rally, which was sanc­tioned, passed largely with­out in­ci­dent, but po­lice later de­tained over 250 peace­ful pro­test­ers as they tried to gather out­side the pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion near the Krem­lin.

As riot po­lice made ar­rests, one masked of­fi­cer punched a woman in the stom­ach and oth­ers seized a man with cere­bral palsy and hauled him away to a wait­ing po­lice truck to the jeers of on­look­ers.

“This is our coun­try, and we have to stop be­ing so afraid to de­mand what we want to see hap­pen here,” said El­iza­veta, a young protester who de­clined to pro­vide her sur­name. “Things won’t change un­til we do.”

No one here is close to writ­ing off Mr. Putin, who as pres­i­dent and prime minister has been ef­fec­tively the only leader this coun­try has known this cen­tury. His role in re­build­ing Rus­sia’s power and na­tional self-esteem in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos and eco­nomic dis­lo­ca­tion of the 1990s re­mains the bedrock of his power.

But his sky-high pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings af­ter the 2014 an­nex­a­tion of Crimea are a dis­tant mem­ory, while ef­forts at a do­mes­tic over­haul — in­clud­ing an un­pop­u­lar pen­sion re­form — have clearly dented Mr. Putin’s au­thor­ity.

“There is a sense of the gov­ern­ment’s moral de­cay,” Lev Gud­kov, a poll­ster at the in­de­pen­dent, Moscow-based Le­vada Cen­ter, re­cently told the Ger­man DW news web­site. “And any hope that Putin could deal with that cor­rup­tion and start pay­ing more at­ten­tion to so­cial pol­icy aimed at sat­is­fy­ing the demands of the peo­ple is dis­solv­ing.

“The time when so­ci­ety blindly trusted the pres­i­dent and ap­proved his poli­cies has passed,” Sergei Polyakov, a Moscow-based po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, said in an interview with the Ve­do­mosti news­pa­per. “Trust and ap­proval [are] lower, and peo­ple want to par­tic­i­pate in the mak­ing of de­ci­sions. If this de­mand is not met, then the protests will grow.”

In a rare mo­ment of po­lit­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­ity, the news of a fa­tal ac­ci­dent at the Rus­sian navy’s test­ing range in the north­west­ern Arkhangels­k re­gion was par­tic­u­larly ill-timed for Mr. Putin, with echoes of crises of the Soviet Union days in­clud­ing the po­ten­tial for nuclear fallout and a fail­ure of of­fi­cials in charge to com­mu­ni­cate. Five nuclear en­gi­neers killed in the in­ci­dent were buried in the city of Sarov.

Crack­ing down

Po­lice have ar­rested more than 2,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing dozens of chil­dren, since protests over the City Duma elec­tions be­gan July 13. Although most were quickly re­leased, 12 peo­ple are fac­ing long sen­tences on charges of par­tic­i­pat­ing in “mass un­rest.” One protester could face up to eight years be­hind bars for throw­ing an empty plas­tic bot­tle at of­fi­cers. In con­trast, video has showed po­lice beat­ing pro­test­ers with night­sticks.

Au­thor­i­ties have also threat­ened to re­move a 1-year-old boy from a cou­ple who briefly at­tended a peace­ful protest with their son on July 27. “This is ter­ri­fy­ing,” said Dmitry Proka­zov, the boy’s fa­ther. “Child pro­tec­tion services could come and take our child away at any mo­ment.” Crit­ics say such heavy-handed mea­sures are aimed at in­tim­i­dat­ing pro­test­ers. The tac­tic ap­pears to have failed be­cause at­ten­dance at a re­cent op­po­si­tion demon­stra­tion was al­most three times higher than a July 20 rally at the same lo­ca­tion. A Le­vada opin­ion poll pub­lished this month said 37% of Mus­covites back the protests and 27% op­pose them. The protests are the largest since more than 100,000 peo­ple took to the streets to protest elec­toral fraud in the 2011 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions.

Most of the as­pir­ing op­po­si­tion can­di­dates have been jailed for up to 30 days on protest-re­lated charges. Alexei Navalny, the prom­i­nent Krem­lin critic, is serv­ing a brief sen­tence for urg­ing peo­ple to rally out­side City Hall. In­ves­ti­ga­tors ac­cused his anti-cor­rup­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion of laun­der­ing mil­lions of dol­lars. His al­lies deny the charge and say it is po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

Of­fi­cials said the as­pir­ing pro-democ­racy can­di­dates faked some of the sig­na­tures that they were re­quired to gather from sup­port­ers to make it onto the bal­lot for the City Duma polls. The op­po­si­tion says the ac­cu­sa­tion is a lie aimed at pre­vent­ing Mr. Putin’s crit­ics from gain­ing a foothold on Rus­sia’s elec­toral lad­der.

“The last il­lu­sion that we are able to par­tic­i­pate legally in pol­i­tics has dis­ap­peared,” said Dmitry Gud­kov, one of the Krem­lin crit­ics who has been barred from the elec­tions.

Lyubov Sobol, an­other would-be op­po­si­tion can­di­date, was seized by riot po­lice over al­le­ga­tions that she was plan­ning a “provo­ca­tion” at the Aug. 10 rally. “I won’t make it to the protest. But you know what to do with­out me. … Rus­sia will be free!” she tweeted. Ms. Sobol, 31, has been on a hunger strike since mid-July to try to force of­fi­cials to al­low her on the bal­lot next month.

Krem­lin cri­sis

Although the 45-seat City Duma has few sig­nif­i­cant pow­ers, the Krem­lin is clearly con­cerned that al­low­ing op­po­si­tion fig­ures to win seats would boost their pop­u­lar­ity and en­cour­age fur­ther dis­sent.

“This is a cri­sis for the Krem­lin,” said Ab­bas Gallyamov, a former speech­writer for Mr. Putin and now a po­lit­i­cal consultant. “Peo­ple are de­mand­ing po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. But Putin can­not give into their demands be­cause there is a great risk that op­po­si­tion can­di­dates will win. And then Putin’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem will start to crum­ble.”

The protests are also rapidly trans­form­ing into a broader show of dis­con­tent with Mr. Putin, who was named prime minister by ail­ing Pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin on Aug. 9, 1999. Mr. Yeltsin ap­pointed him pres­i­dent just three months later.

Aside from the elec­tion row in Moscow, an­a­lysts say, an un­pop­u­lar five-year in­crease in the pen­sion age and wide­spread poverty have con­trib­uted to a slide in Mr. Putin’s rat­ings. Over a quar­ter of all Rus­sian chil­dren are living in fam­i­lies with monthly in­comes of less than $150, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment statis­tics.

An opin­ion poll pub­lished this month by the state-linked FOM poll­ster in­di­cated that just 43% of Rus­sians would vote for Mr. Putin in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — his low­est fig­ures since April 2001. United Rus­sia, Mr. Putin’s rul­ing party, has the sup­port of just 13% of vot­ers, ac­cord­ing to an­other poll. The party’s brand is so toxic that its can­di­dates are all stand­ing as nom­i­nally “in­de­pen­dent” at the City Duma polls.


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