Putin’s regime faces increasing resistance

Rampant corruption and economic stagnation have caused Russia’s middle class to begin a grassroots movement.

The popularity Putin enjoyed during the 12 years of his rule is ‘evaporating before his eyes’, says author [GALLO/GETTY]

On Sunday night, Russian mixed martial arts star Fedor Emelianenko defeated American Jeff Monson in three rounds. The match had been widely advertised as an almost historic sports event and was broadcast live on Russian national television. 

After Emelianenko was declared the winner, Vladimir Putin – Russia’s prime minister and former (and future) president – appeared on the stage. He had prepared a speech to celebrate the victory of the Russian wrestler. But as soon as the long-time ruler of Russia took the microphone, the 20,000-strong audience began to boo, whistle and yell at him. Putin paused, looked around in surprise, but quickly regained control and managed to finish his speech. He was apparently shocked by this public humiliation, perhaps the first one in his whole career, but definitely not the last.

Putin’s impending presidential term will be much more difficult than the previous 12 years of his rule. His past popularity is evaporating before his eyes.

The most dramatic change is taking place in the middle class. For many years, it had been the second most important foundation of the regime’s stability (the first being bureaucracy and the siloviki, of course). People who had just made it out of poverty didn’t want any shocks or rapid changes. All they wanted was to repay their mortgage, buy a new Volkswagen instead of an old Daewoo, or have vacation in Turkey or Egypt during the summer.

Transparency International ranks Russia 154 out of 178 in their Corruption Perception Index – below Haiti, Cameroon and Zimbabwe.

While they surely had their own grievances, at least they believed that Putin was the lesser evil compared to anyone else out there.

Not any more. Now, the middle class is becoming the most discontent social stratum in Russia. The people who catcalled Putin at Olimpiysky had paid hundreds of dollars to see the match. Most of them saw their income grow during Putin’s rule. So why did they boo?

First, there is fatigue. Putin and his team have been around for 12 years and plan to stay as long as they can. Most of their promises remain unfulfilled, most reforms unfinished. They keep singing same songs, blaming the “turbulent 90s” and the West for all their failures, but these stories are becoming harder to sell. Putin’s former classmates, coworkers, neighbours and friends still occupy all the most important positions in the government and business. It’s not stability any more. The word is zastoy, or stagnation.

Endemic corruption

But it’s a stagnation that is actually turning into decay. The Soviet-era infrastructure is failing more and more often. Old boats sink and Tupolev airplanes crash with passengers on board, space rockets fall down and Russian-made Lada still struggles to live up to the name of automobile.

The decade of prosperity fuelled by high oil prices brought about growth of consumption, but not change in production. This is another reason of disaffection of the middle class.

Then, there is corruption. One could speak forever about it in Russia, but suffice is to say that Transparency International ranks this country 154 out of 178 in their Corruption Perception Index – below Haiti, Cameroon and Zimbabwe. Unlike Western countries, corruption in Russia is usually initiated by rent-seeking civil servants and takes the form of extortion – not mere bribery. 

Small and mid-size businesses suffer from it the most, but they are virtually helpless because law-enforcement is perhaps the most corrupt part of the system. The death, while in custody, of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who had accused police officers of stealing huge amounts of taxpayers’ money two years ago, is a tragic illustration of this endemic corruption.

Another issue that has alienated the Russian middle class from the regime is vivid inequality before the law. This is insulting for those people who expect to have a higher social status. According to an unwritten code, a police officer always has more rights than an ordinary person, an Federal Security Service officer is superior to a policeman even in everyday life, and so on. This system is sometimes concealed and other times very visible.

For example, hundreds of civil servants (as well as wealthy businessmen) drive around Moscow in cars that sport police-like flashlights, which give them an official traffic privilege. They may speed, drive on the wrong side of the road and ignore traffic lights; if an accident occurs, someone else will always be to blame. 

One of the most active new grassroots movements in Russia appeared last year to fight this system. It is called the Blue Buckets Society because its members put little blue buckets (that look like flashlights) on the rooftops of their cars. Most of these people are middle-class car owners who had never been involved in politics. Now, after being ignored by the government for some time, they joined the protest movement.

Grassroots movements

Ultimately, the middle class is beginning to feel responsibility for the future of the country. After years of pursuing only individual goals and neglecting the social life, they are arriving at the realisation that you cannot isolate yourself from your environment. You can’t “buy” a safe city, a respectful police force or an honest government. Of course, you may emigrate (and more and more people choose to do so), but not everybody can do that, especially those who have something to lose. An increasing number of Russians are trying to follow the example of Western countries, where grassroots activism is the norm.

As a result, we see numerous grassroots initiatives appear in the country to deal with various problems. They have no help from the government and often direct pressure from it. It’s not just the middle class, though: Students and the well-educated lower-middle class are also joining this new wave. Together, they learn to trust each other, develop strategies and achieve their goals. And they are increasingly political, too.

These people use blogs and social networks. Many of them travel abroad and speak foreign languages. They may still be a minority among the country’s 140 million people, but they are more active and influential than the average person. And they already form the majority of internet users.

One of the most popular Russian bloggers and anti-corruption activists, Alexey Navalny, is also an outspoken critic of the Kremlin. This February he coined a slogan, “[Putin’s] United Russia is a Party of Crooks and Thieves”, and it became unexpectedly popular. 

When Navalny debated against a United Russia member of Parliament, Evgeny Fyodorov, on a popular radio station, he won the vote of the audience by 99 to 1. If you enter the Russian word for “party” in Google, its autocomplete feature will suggest “party of crooks and thieves” as the most popular search.

And it’s not just virtual. 

Opinion polls show that the popularity of Vladimir Putin is at an all-time low, and United Russia is also seeing its ratings fall. The upcoming parliamentary elections on December 4 will be a huge blow for the government, regardless of their result. 

United Russia will either lose the constitutional majority it had in the Duma or will have to engage in outright falsifications, which will further delegitimise Putin’s regime.

Oleg Kozlovsky is a Russian democracy activist and director of Vision of Tomorrow Foundation.

You can follow him on Twitter @kozlovsky_en.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.