Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Invincible No More

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 28, 2017 --  

Mass protests in Russia show the limits of Putin's power.

When thousands of protesters filled the streets of cities across Russia on Sunday1, it took Western observers by surprise. Large protests have been unheard of since the last round was crushed in the runup to the 2012 presidential elections. Back then, members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot were infamously jailed, leading many in the West to pronounce Russian democracy dead and consider stongman President Valdimir Putin unassailable.

What these observations have missed is just how tenuous Putin's position is. Back in 2012, when he was running for re-election, crushing protests and arresting dissident rock musicians, the Russian economy was still riding high. It had recovered from the financial crisis along with the price of oil, the most important export industry in Russia. Oil prices stayed high at around $100 per barrel for a couple of years, but this wasn't going to last. Starting in 2014, the price collapsed under pressure from American fracking producers, bringing it down to a low of $26 per barrel in early 2016.2 Russia's economy quickly entered a recession.

Perhaps anticipating economic trouble ahead, Putin began stoking nationalist feelings. He annexed Ukraine's province of Crimea in early 2014 and instigated a violent rebellion in eastern Ukraine that same year. The next year, he sent the Russian military overseas to join the war in Syria on the side of government forces, propping up an ally and sticking his finger in the eye of the West that supported the opposition.

Predictably, the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia, further hurting the economy, but now giving Putin an external enemy to blame. It was no longer just oil prices that were tanking the economy, but Russia's enemies in the West. Instead of blaming Putin for their misery, they supported him for standing up for Russia against Western bullying. Isn't Mother Russia worth a little economic pain?

For awhile perhaps. But how long can this last?

Enter Alexei Navalny, a blogger, politician and anti-corruption activist. The anti-corruption foundation run by Navalny recently published a report about an estate outside Moscow frequented by Putin's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The expansive property with multiple houses and helipads features a large pond with an island hosting a small house for ducks. Reports of this duck house spread wildly on Russian social media, and led many to joke that even politicians' ducks live better than the Russian people do.3

Like all good jokes, this one has a ring of truth. In 2015, real wages in Russia declined 10.9 percent4. The economy has since stagnated while inflation has continued to be a problem. It makes it much harder for Russians to continue suffering for the sake of Mother Russia when they see their leaders living such luxurious lives. In Sunday's mass demonstrations, many protesters carried yellow rubber ducks in mockery of Medvedev's luxurious summer retreat.

Navalny is hardly a darling of the West. While he was once considered a liberal, his more recent nationalist leanings have led him to make racist statements about people from the Caucasus that make Westerners cringe. And while he has declared his intention to run against Putin in 2018 elections, there is every possibility that he will end up in jail. He was previously arrested on dubious corruption charges, and arrested again after Sunday's protests. Or he be shot on the side of a bridge like opposition leader Boris Nemtsov two years ago.

In the end, the protests aren't about Navalny. The protests show that conditions in Russia are ripe for somebody to take the reins of the opposition. Westerners may be right to point out that the liberal opposition is dead. But that doesn't mean that there aren't other politicians like Nevalny who could rally enough public support to be a serious challenge to Putin. As Russia's economy falters and corruption flourishes, it's strongman suddenly doesn't look so invincible anymore.

Related Web Columns:

A Problem of Strength, June 6, 2015


1. Washington Post, Jailing in Russia of Navalny Staff 'Attempt to Disrupt', March 28, 2017

2. CNN Money, Oil Crash Taking Stocks Down ... Again, February 11, 2016

3. Moscow Times, Even the Ducks Live Like Kings at Russian PM Medvedev's Summer Getaway, September 15, 2016

4. Bloomberg News, Russia Sees Biggest Decline in Wages, Retail Sales Since 1999, November 19, 2015