Vladimir Putin seemingly ran a successful operation that attacked American's 2016 presidential election and threw the election to Donald Trump, a cross between a carnival barker and a would be fascist dictator on the style of Mussolini (even though he likely sees himself as Hitler, not Mussolini). Now, however, with FBI, Congressional and other investigations underway of Trump's Russia ties and possible collusion, Putin may have received far less than he had hoped for. Meanwhile, on the home front, Putin is facing protests at home. While not sufficient for now to topple Putin's dictatorship, the protests nonetheless suggest that all is not well in Russia. A piece in the New Yorker looks at what these protests mean for Russia's would be tsar. Here are highlights:
Sunday in Moscow was a bright spring day, chilly but clear, and by the time I made my way to Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, the sidewalks were full of people strolling up, toward Pushkin Square, and down, toward Red Square and the red-brick towers of the Kremlin. They had come out for a march led by Alexey Navalny, Russia’s savviest and most popular opposition politician, who had declared a nationwide day of anti-corruption action. The protest was one of mere presence, rather than any specific activity: a few people held signs, and every now and then a chant broke out, but the main political statement of the day was simply showing up.
The nominal cause for the march, and for similar gatherings in dozens of cities across the country, was that Navalny and his researchers had unearthed about Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s largely enfeebled Prime Minister. Earlier this month, Navalny had published a report detailing various far-flung properties, luxury yachts, and other high-end goods that Medvedev has allegedly acquired over the years, in part by contributions that Russian oligarchs made to fake charity foundations. But Sunday’s demonstrations were also about a creeping mood of public dissatisfaction and fatigue, a sense that, after seventeen years, Vladimir Putin’s political system was running out of arguments to justify its continued monopoly hold on power. Official corruption proved to be a more compelling rallying cry than civil rights or voting irregularities: less about abstract political freedoms and more about the insult of learning that your country’s Prime Minister had acquired a vineyard in Tuscany while disposable incomes an average of twelve per cent since 2014.
The Moscow mayor’s office had not authorized the march route—it had instead offered organizers the use of a park outside the city center—and had cautioned that it could not “bear responsibility for any possible negative consequences” of the unsanctioned demonstration. The warning didn’t seem to keep people away.
Navalny himself was grabbed and thrown into a police van a few minutes after he arrived, with a pair of Nike sneakers hanging from his neck—a riff on one of the charges that he had levelled against Medvedev, who he said used a front company led by a loyal crony to buy himself running shoes.
Near the Central Telegraph building, where I stood, the flow of people passed unbothered, but by Pushkin Square riot police, wearing black body armor and helmets, arrested dozens of people, clubbing and beating them before dragging them away. By the end of the day, as many as a thousand people in Moscow had been detained, far more than in 2011 and 2012, the last time the capital saw demonstrations of this size.
I was struck by how many young people had joined the protest march. During the previous wave of large-scale demonstrations in Moscow, the crowds were largely drawn from the capital’s middle class—educated, professional people in their twenties, thirties, and forties. On Sunday, the presence of high schoolers and college students was immediately noticeable. “Never before have schoolchildren and students participated on such a massive scale in opposition protests,” Meduza, an independent news site that is home to some of Russia’s best journalism, declared.
Younger Russians, though, are less likely to pay attention to state-controlled TV, and it seems that the Kremlin has less certain tools for reaching this demographic, let alone shaping its political attitudes. Even LifeNews, a usually servile, pro-Kremlin tabloid site, has admitted this new reality.
Sunday’s protests, in the columnist’s view, represented an “extremely disturbing and serious warning sign” for Kremlin officials. “Television has failed, and its inefficiency as a mass ‘agitator and organizer’ will only intensify.”
Russia’s young people can truly be called “Putin’s” generation: those under twenty-five have no significant memories of any other Russian leader. Yet, as was the case during perestroika, in the nineteen-eighties, the authorities appear to have lost a certain sway over the country’s youth, and no longer speak their language.
For the Kremlin, the geographic diversity of Sunday’s protests was just as unsettling as their demographics. Gatherings of various sizes were held in nearly a hundred Russian cities, including places where demonstrations hadn’t occurred five years ago, during the previous wave of anti-Kremlin protests.
It was clear that the Kremlin hadn’t anticipated anti-government activity in such regions, and that it had failed to give clear instructions to local authorities. As a result, in some places, the protests went on unmolested; in others, they were broken up roughly, as in Omsk, where authorities had snowplows drive out the crowd in the city’s central square.
With elections a year away, it’s unclear what argument or bargain Putin wants to make with the Russian people in his fourth, and presumably last, term. The patriotic boost that the annexation of Crimea provided is starting to fade. Russia’s military operation in Syria is an even less potent propaganda tool. Putin and his political advisers don’t have a coherent answer to the populist and non-ideological anti-corruption message offered by Navalny.
[E]ven if he figures out how to deal with Navalny, Putin will still face a trickier dilemma: How much longer will the cocktail of inertia, stability, and fear of the unknown keep him generally popular? And, if that political tincture loses its potency, what will his next offer to the Russian people entail? He may be able to delay answering those ques tions for some time, but not forever.
Putin needs to be driven from power. He is but the latest of Russia's failed leaders who have betrayed the Russian people and their best interests - all to maintain Putin's power and to enrich himself. Perhaps the younger generations ae=re waking to the fact that Putin has betrayed them and Russia itself.