Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin seems unsure of how to handle shifting public opinion and the unprecedented protests in Russia. While he appears to be growing more accommodating of evolving public demands, his actions betray his trepidation at losing control of the situation.
Tens of thousands of Russians have been braving the bitter cold to demonstrate against rigged elections in December. This extraordinary politicization of the middle class shows economic growth is no longer sufficient for the country’s growing urban population. The younger generation compares themselves to their counterparts in democratic Western countries and demand the same political liberties and freedoms.
Putin obviously understands the need to embrace the changing aspirations of Russia’s urban middle class, as their popular support is crucial to his staying in power. There has been speculation that Putin 2.0 is in the making, as he seems to be attempting to reach out to the middle class. For example, in a much publicized letter, he outlines his plans for fighting systemic corruption, increasing justice and transparency in the country, and defeating oligarchy. Additionally, instead of breaking up the opposition by force, the government has authorized anti-Putin rallies. In fact, Putin has gone as far as to praise the thousands of people that attended the rallies saying he agrees with their message. Previously mocked for fearing competition due to his opting out of presidential debates in 2000, 2004, 2012, he recently made an extraordinary appearance on a talk-show titled "Putin or Not Putin?." The very title of this talk would have been unimaginable a few months ago.
And yet, his actions do not match his public façade of adaptation and modernization. Reports of the Kremlin questioning and threatening key activists and their families continue to be published. While Putin announces his sympathy for the protesters, he calls the organizers of these rallies "traitors" and says he will "act against them harshly." While he writes of democracy and inclusion, he continues to curtail the freedom of the press. The Kremlin is currently probing newspaper, TV, and radio stations that have proven to be a bold outlet for public opinion and protest, and the pressure continues to build on those that dare to speak out against him.
Some of his more ridiculous actions also hint at his paranoia. His government has recently made waves for banning toys from protesting against the Kremlin. Citizens were also paid or coerced into hosting a pro-Kremlin rally this February as an antidote to the anti-Putin protests, which included discussions of America’s plot to stir revolution at the event.
More worryingly, Putin has promised to almost double military spending in a recent speech. A former finance minister has strongly opposed this move, and points out that Russia simply cannot afford this spending. While this move could simply be a pre-election flexing of muscle, it might also be an indication of his plans to repress post-election protests in a more severe fashion. Additionally, his defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s violence was another blow to those who hoped for change. Instead of showing he’s willing to change and addressing concerns of Kremlin corruption and vote rigging, he’s reinforced his place amongst those in favour of autocratic regimes.
On one hand, the public’s demands seem reasonable enough. Instead of asking for a change of regime (perhaps for lack of a better alternative) they call for greater political freedom, more transparency and honest elections. However, the key political and economic institutions in the country are dysfunctional and rely on corruption. In order to appease the growing middle class, Russia needs an independent judiciary; one that can be taken seriously and doesn’t put dead lawyers on trial or ban toys from protesting against the Kremlin. It needs free media and more transparent politics, but Putin fears both criticism and competition.
The key problem is that the public has outgrown Russia's authoritarian system and the context in which it was built. Putin needs to account for the dissemination of the internet, social media, a young population that does not identify with the Soviet Union and the shifting of economic and political power to the east. It’s harder to "manage" democracy in an increasingly hyper-connected, globalized world. Either he adapts to survive, or risks being left behind as Russian society continues to evolve with the times.
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum