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The People Versus Vladimir Putin

Russia’s strongman may be more vulnerable than you think.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By CATHY YOUNG
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After Vladimir Putin’s predictable victory in the Russian presidential election in March, the opposition​—​which had enjoyed a few heady months of visibility and freedom after the December parliamentary vote became a debacle for the Kremlin​—​seemed demoralized and disoriented. The protests were losing momentum, and it looked like the “Russian Spring” would be merely an intermission before the new Putin presidency. Yet a few weeks after Putin’s May 7 inauguration, his opponents seem reenergized​—​and, keeping with the seasonal metaphors, the Kremlin may be in for a long, hot summer.

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Putin’s popularity is hardly irrelevant to the United States. Mitt Romney’s much-ridiculed declaration that Russia “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe” may have been a dramatic overstatement, but plainly the Kremlin positions itself as a key antagonist of U.S. policy​—​most recently in Syria, but also over Iran’s nuclear program. How successful it will be in this “spoiler” role abroad depends in part on how secure it feels in power at home.

Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute conference in Washington, D.C., this month, Russian journalist and activist in the pro-democracy opposition movement Vladimir Kara-Murza asserted that “it is more and more possible​—​it is certainly more probable than only six months ago​—​that Russia will relatively soon once again face the task of building a democratic system on the ruins of yet another authoritarian regime.” Kara-Murza’s remarks came a day after a blatant attempt to intimidate the opposition not only failed but backfired.

On the eve of a major rally in Moscow scheduled for June 12​—​with a proper permit from the city government​—​police searched the homes of several prominent figures in the protest movement, including anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak. The targets of these raids were also summoned for questioning by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, at a time clearly meant to interfere with their appearances at the demonstration.

These actions were ostensibly related to an investigation into violence at a previous rally, on May 6, where some protesters clashed with riot police. But the intent to harass was obvious; so was, in some cases, the intent to humiliate and smear. Sobchak had all the cash found in her apartment confiscated, and the exact amount of the stash was posted, complete with photos, on the Moscow police website.

The result? The June 12 march and rally had the largest turnout of any since the election​—​attendees undeterred even by heat and intermittent rain​—​with unofficial estimates of more than 50,000 (the police count was 15,000). Judging from online comments, many people who had not planned to attend were provoked by the government’s thuggish tactics. Indeed, pro-government TV journalist Maksim Shevchenko made the bizarre claim that the raids were a setup by Putin foes inside law enforcement seeking to boost attendance at the demonstration.

A few days earlier, Putin had signed into law a sweeping measure, hastily passed by the Duma, to facilitate a crackdown on protests. Maximum penalties for participation in unsanctioned rallies were hiked to 300,000 rubles, or about $9,100, for individuals (doubled for public officials) and 1 million rubles for companies. These are astronomical sums in a country with a median annual income around $10,000. Another clause bars anyone charged with two or more public assembly-related violations in the past 12 months​—​such as participating in an unsanctioned rally or failing to obey the police​—​from obtaining a legal permit for a demonstration.

While the legislation has been met with outrage, no one, so far, seems particularly cowed (despite a wave of prose-cutions related to the May 6 unrest). Instead, the government is seen as running scared. On a Moscow radio program, political consultant and former Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky described the new law as a “hysterical fit” proving that “the government has lost the ability to govern.”

At the Washington conference, Kara-Murza noted that “9 or 10 years ago the Putin regime could do anything it pleased​—​shut down TV stations, shut down opposition parties, rig elections​—​and expect apathy and silence. That time has passed; everything they do now, they have to do looking over their shoulder.” Current events seem to bear this out.

In one recent controversy, Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee and a Putin crony, was alleged to have physically threatened Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta (the newspaper where murdered reporter Anna Politkovskaya worked), in response to Sokolov’s harsh criticism of law enforcement in an organized crime case. At first, Bastrykin angrily denied the accusation; a short time later, he publicly apologized to the newspaper for his “emotional outburst” and behaving inappropriately. By Western standards, it’s shocking that the head of the Russian equivalent of the FBI can keep his job after a de facto admission that he threatened a journalist. By the standards of Putin-era Russia, the apology attests to public opinion’s newfound muscle.

The opposition and the independent Russian press take Putin’s loss of credibility and public support​—​especially among the educated urban middle class​—​as a given. Is this shift in opinion real, or inflated by wishful thinking? On the surface, Putin’s approval ratings remain impressive; even harsh critics of the vote-rigging in the March election concede that without fraud, Putin’s share of the vote would still have been over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Yet a closer look at poll data suggests that Putin’s popularity is indeed waning.

A nationwide survey in April by the Levada Center, Russia’s premier independent polling firm, found that only 38 percent of Russians believed Putin would have won the election if the media had been free to report on abuses of power; about as many said he would have lost, with the rest undecided. When people were asked to name Putin’s positive qualities, the poll revealed that his “positives” had declined drastically in four years. In 2008, 62 percent praised Putin as “hardworking” and “energetic”; the figure was down to 38 percent this year. “Mature and experienced” dropped from 47 to 28 percent;  “responsible,” from 41 to 17 percent;  “likable” and “charismatic,” from an already-low 30 percent to an abysmal 7 percent.

With those numbers, it seems increasingly likely that the public will desert Putin if it sees a realistic alternative. But is that a moot point with six years left till the next election​—​or could protests swell to the point of forcing real concessions, or even Putin’s resignation? That depends on many things, including the state of the Russian economy and the oil market.

The United States can help by keeping up the pressure. One proposed measure hailed by the Russian opposition is the “Magnitsky bill” pending in the Senate, which would penalize Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses by denying them visas and freezing their U.S. assets. It is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009 after denial of medical care and (more than likely) severe beatings; he had been held without trial for nearly a year on almost certainly fabricated fraud charges after seeking to expose corruption. The Obama administration, concerned about jeopardizing relations with Russia, has opposed the bill, and Senate Democrats have tried to weaken and delay it. But with the Kremlin poised to increase repression in the face of growing discontent, a strong signal on human rights could not be more timely.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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