Staunton, July 8 – Ever more Russians tell pollsters the Kremlin is repressing its political opponents, a reflection of their own anger about declines in their standard of living and of their sense that the country is increasingly unstable, according to experts who nonetheless argue that these popular attitudes will not produce a united opposition against the regime anytime soon.
The Levada Center reported last week that 58 percent of Russian believe that the charges the government has brought against the Bolotnoye demonstrators are “an instrument of political repression” being used by the Kremlin against its opponents. Moreover, the polling agency found that ever more Russians are paying attention to that and other political trials (levada.ru/04-07-2013/bolotnoe-delo-i-kirovles-ezhemesyachnaya-dinamika).
And the Center’s survey found that ever fewer Russians and especially those in the major cities trust state television, the main channel the current regime has used to promote its ideas. In Moscow, for example, 57 percent said they do not trust state television on the Navalny trial. The figure for the country as a whole is 44 percent.
Andrey Polunin of “Svobodnaya pressa” asked three Russian experts to comment on this – Oleg Sheyn, the leader of the Labor Party and former Duma deputy, Andrey Parshev, an historian and commentator, and Yevgeny Minchenko, the director of the International Institute of Political Expertise (svpressa.ru/politic/article/70511/).
Sheyn said that Russian attitudes on the Bolotnoye affair are not about the opposition between the leaders of that demonstration and the Kremlin but rather “about the much broader opposition between the people and the authorities.” Thirty-eight million Russians are officially unemployed, and many are suffering from increases in rent and communal services.
That is bad enough, Sheyn continued, but Russians can see that while they or their neighbors are suffering, members of the bureaucracy are getting rich.
Such popular anger lies behind local protests in Voronezh against nickel mining, against water supply problems in Saratov, and crime in Yaroslavl, he added, noting that “citizens value these local conflicts” and they see others in conflict with the authorities as being in the same boat as they are.
But if Russians view conflicts between the extra-systemic opposition and the Kremlin through this optic, they do not see the leaders of that opposition as being interested in them or able to lead protests in the regions, “even though there are more not fewer dissatisfied people in the regions than in Moscow.” At present, there are no links between them.
Popular unhappiness with the government will only grow given looming price hikes for basic services, the current budget deficit, and the inevitable devaluation of the ruble once Russia enters the WTO, he said. All this is leading “to a fall in the authority of the federal authorities” and means that Russia has entered deep political crisis.” If the authorities try to stop this with repression, that “will only pour gasoline on the fire of dissatisfaction.”
Parshev offered a different explanation for the figures. He said that the Bolotnoye opposition couldn’t attract enough electoral support to get into the Duma but that it has “a powerful information resource” in the websites that it controls and uses to put out reports and commentaries.
Russian protest activity is “covered extremely selectively” in the media, the historian noted. When Bolotnoye was taking place, for example, there were large protests against Russia’s joining the WTO. But the former received coverage at least in the opposition Internet while the latter largely did not.
But Minchenko suggested that the survey tapped into something deeper and more troubling: a growing sense among Russians that the powers that be are no longer capable of guaranteeing stability or preventing a turn for the worse. As a result, support for Vladimir Putin and the party of power are falling.
Despite that, he pointed out, “no new attractive figures are appearing in the opposition,” at least in part because of the Kremlin’s effort to “criminalize the leaders” of any group that opposes it. But at the same time, those efforts are reducing the authority of the state media for many Russians.
Those factor mean, Minchenko concluded, that the population right now is not particularly ready to engage in protests, but it may very well be that 2014 and 2015 will be difficult years for the powers that be.