In 2014-2015, the occupation of Crimea sent Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s approval ratings soaring to as much as 86 percent and kept them high for a few years. Over the past few months, however, his popularity has steadily declined and reached 66 percent – roughly as much as it was back in 2012-2013, when he was facing mass protests.
This trend is related to the decline in people’s real incomes after Russia’s recent economic crisis. One event, in particular, contributed greatly to Putin’s rising unpopularity: the 2018 decision to raise the retirement age.
The optics get worse when citizens are polled on major political institutions; roughly two-thirds of Russians disapprove of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his government, while a solid majority hold negative views on the State Duma and local governors.
In Moscow, traditionally a hotbed of discontent, the ruling United Russia party, formally headed by Medvedev, has become so unpopular that its candidates have been forced to run as independents in the city council elections, due in September.
The low popularity of those in power, however, has not really translated yet to major gains for the Russian opposition, which has struggled to mobilise its own support base for a variety of reasons.
First, various legal and bureaucratic barriers the Kremlin has put in place over the past few years to prevent popular mobilisation and free electoral competition are working. Opposition candidates are disqualified from running for office on a regular basis either on flimsy “technical” grounds or simply for failing to fulfil a variety of impossible requirements.
The upcoming Moscow council elections are a case in point. Opposition politicians are forced to run as independents because they have not been allowed to register a party. The main opposition leader Alexei Navalny has made nine attempts since 2012, but each time his party’s application has been rejected.
By law, independent candidates have to collect three percent of the number of voters in their districts in order to register for the race.
But as Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s strategist, has argued, this is an almost impossible task. When you do the math – ie from the available voters, you subtract those who have left on their summer holiday and cross out those who would not even open the door to a campaigner, then take off all those suspicious of signing official documents, then again remove those reluctant to hand over their ID details and finally eliminate those who are not even registered to vote in the district they live in – you might indeed get close to three percent.
In practice, it would be a miracle to get this number for a few other reasons, including thugs who intimidate and attack signature collectors and mistakes that might have been made when personal data was copied or that might be imagined by electoral commission officials eager to disqualify the opposition and please their superiors. That is unless you are a pro-Kremlin candidate, in which case, the needed signatures just emerge miraculously from the ether.
Thus, while opposition candidates, like Ilya Yashin, are quite popular among their constituents and have good chances of winning in a fair election, many might not even make on the ballot.
But all these legal and technical barriers are by far not the greatest challenge the opposition is facing. Rather, it is the political apathy of the Russian population and its general aversion to political change.
Unlike the late 1980s, when there was a huge and self-evident gulf in the standard of living in the USSR and Western countries, which politicised the general population, today most Russian citizens enjoy much better economic prospects, even with the recent recession.
More importantly, Russia is in much better shape economically than many of the former Soviet states currently supported by the West through subsidies and the promise of integration into NATO and the EU.
Economically speaking, the Putin years have been by far the best in living memory for all current generations of Russians. Economic growth has improved mobility – both socioeconomic and geographic – for most citizens. Today, many have economic opportunities that allow them to achieve a better standard of living, are able to move and live wherever they want within the country or abroad, which was not allowed in Soviet times, and have the means to travel, which most Soviet citizens could only dream of.
Indeed, the economic prosperity has come at a political price, but Russia, compared with some of its neighbours, is mildly authoritarian and repression cannot be compared with what it was at the height of totalitarianism.
In other words, neither the economy, nor the political violence is bad enough to cause mass politicisation and mobilisation to match those of the late 1980s. But perhaps the greatest deterrent for anti-government activity in Russia is Ukraine.
The Ukrainian example has remained the dominant theme in Kremlin propaganda over the last five years. By effectively outsourcing his domestic political conflict to another country, Putin killed two birds with one stone.
On the one hand, he sowed fear by showing Russians the level of violence they may face should they choose to revolt. On the other, the failure of the Maidan Revolution to upend a ruling oligarchy and change the rules of the political and economic game has turned Ukraine into a scarecrow for millions of potentially sympathetic Russians, instead of the blueprint for social change that it might have been.
It is against the backdrop of these challenges that the opposition is struggling to reignite the democratic process. It is indeed an uphill battle, and to some it might look like a Sisyphean task, but opposition leaders are also not giving up. In the past, their efforts have been rewarded with small victories. Two years ago, opposition candidates won 17 municipal districts, mostly in the city centre, thereby almost surrounding the Kremlin with rebel-held territories.
In this upcoming elections, at least five opposition candidates could run; they have all collected enough signatures and will await approval of their registration.
Whether they manage to repeat the success at the 2017 Moscow local election will depend on their stamina and on how the Kremlin’s political technologists evaluate the pros and cons of allowing them to run. But regardless of what happens on September 9, one thing is for sure: Political change in Russia will be painfully slow.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.