Russia’s Shifting Politics: What Has Changed in the Past Month
The Declining Popularity of Putin
Moscow’s annexation of Crimea boosted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings to a dizzyingly high 87 percent. The President relished such high numbers in the years following. He won the 2018 presidential election with ease, despite continuous difficulties with corruption, economic disparity, and social justice. In June, State pollster WCIOM reported that Putin’s approval rating dropped from 79 percent to 72 percent, and dissatisfaction increased from 13 percent to 18 percent. This dramatically changed over the course of four months, as Putin’s approval rating now stands at 35 percent as of October 7, with dissatisfaction up to 26 percent. The downward trend does not only affect the President, as the Russian Governments disapproval ratings currently stand at 44 percent.
This fall in approval ratings can be attributed to many factors, but the one to highlight as the most influential is the pension reform—hiking the retirement age of men and woman to 65 and 60 from 60 and 55, respectively. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had previously attempted to shield Putin from attacks over the legislation, by saying that the president is “not taking part in that process.” But on October 3, Moscow announced that the upper chamber had passed the legislation and the President had signed it into law.
Photographs and videos have surfaced of massive protests in the past month; a guardsman is seen striking a man with full force, young children have been detained in Moscow, and a September poll showed that more than 50 percent of Russians would continue to participate in protests. Activists took to the streets in St. Petersburg, wishing Putin “many years in jail” on his October 7 birthday.
The public outcry was anticipated by many experts. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Affairs Department, Russia’s population is expected to fall from 146.8 million (in 2017) to 132.7 million people by 2050. Studies have shown that in over half of country’s regions, a Russian citizen is not likely to live up to the proposed new retirement age. (As represented in the image above.)
The new retirement age will affect all Russians in the workforce, and it has already affected Putin’s popularity. But it is more than just a cause to an effect, but rather as a potential trend.
Recent Local Elections in Russia
Perhaps historical events happen in pairs, for as Putin’s fall in ratings has earned him more than a few international headlines, so has Russian’s rejection of their Kremlin-picked candidates.
On September 12, President Putin stood on stage at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) and boast about Russia’s Far East and the work he has done in policy in order to revitalize the region. He noted that industrial production in the region had increased by almost 22 percent in the past 5 years; consequently, he mentioned the 130+ new enterprises that were launched—creating over 16 thousand modern workplaces. But despite the rise in revitalization, Kremlin-backed candidates began to lose support in the mayoral elections.
Four days after delivering the speech, the Maritime Territory (which Vladivostok is a part of in the Far East) held their gubernatorial runoff vote. Communist Party candidate Andrei Ishchenko, 37, seemed poised to become the next governor of Primorsky Krai, with 95 percent of the vote counted; however, the results suddenly changed overnight, allowing his Kremlin-backed rival, Andrei Tarasenko, to claim victory. Tarasenko was briefly declared the winner, but Russia’s Federal Election Commission couldn’t stand the weight of the evidence that the count had been rigged in the final hours. The vote tally was ultimately cancelled, and there is no set date for the next election. It seems that Moscow may be left without a strong candidate to back. It is worth noting that this is the first time in sixteen years that Russian authorities have overturned a local election’s results.
On September 23, another Kremlin-backed politician was defeated. Vyacheslav Shport lost governorship of the Khabarovsk region to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The Kremlin-backed candidate conceded to Sergei Furgal, who won nearly 70 percent of the vote in the second-biggest region in the Far East. As many citizens celebrate, many historians are pointing to history to warn of changes in parties that ultimately provide no change of policy.
The Liberal Democratic Party is anything but democratic—allegations often accuse it of being a nationalist party with links to the mafia. The surge of votes for the LDP was notable, as many academics and analysis did not anticipate such a shift. But the influx of votes likely has less to do with support for the Party, than it does in regard to the national distaste for the candidates supported by officials at the Kremlin. Even Cossacks, Putin’s previously reliable ally in the United Russia Party has quit and condemned the Kremlin’s policy in a new video. According to Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, voters could not have cared less what party Furgal and Sipyagin represented—they only cared that the candidates were not from the United Russia Party.
Remembering Russian history is pertinent to determine a way to predict the effect these events will have. Despite President Boris Yeltsin’s reelection win against Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov in 1996, the government was disallowed to change democratically. Similarly, having a shift of party in power will only produce change as long as Moscow allows them to do so. Previous U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul recently wrote, “Washington must be patient. As long as Putin remains in power, changing Russia will be close to impossible.” With the pension reforms, protests, and local elections, the question still stands: What does this mean? Depending on what unfolds over the next few months, there could be economic or political lash-back.
While the pension age raise is being protested, many changes are not gaining the same traction in international headlines. Moscow has plans to invest 24 billion USD on infrastructure, while a 52.3 billion USD development fund was created in the summer to cover infrastructure spending until 2024 as outlined in Putin’s May decrees. In 2019, the state budget will break even at 50 USD per blue barrel[i]—11 USD less than what they are currently paying in 2018. It may seem as though President Putin is hoping that the unpopular reforms will all be but a memory by the 2021 and 2024 elections. This very well could work. However, the public distress over the pension reform was evidence that implementing unpopular policies may not go unnoticed.
Additionally, despite his empowering speech at the EEF, there is a growing rift between the capital and the opposite side of the country. Centralized power, as Putin historically has been keen to develop and maintain, is relatively difficult when there is 9,142.1 km between Moscow and Vladivostok. Seven time zones separate the two cities, making it highly unlikely that towns like Vladivostok will be able to change how Moscow runs. But it would be a blunder to discount the possibility of a strengthened, unified voice arising in Russia’s Far East.
Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute Leon Aron warns of an alternative outcome. He predicts that history may repeat itself, comparable to what we saw in 2013.
“The obvious targets for engineering another Crimea or Ukraine are Narva and Latgale, the heavily Russian-speaking enclaves in Estonia and Latvia, respectively.”
Though many Russia experts have disagreed with this line of thought, it is not an unfounded proposition. At the end of 2013, President Putin’s ratings were at their lowest in 13 years—only 6 points below what they are today. Much more will have to fall in place for this possibility to come to fruition.
At this stage, only time will tell. But history must be remembered as events in Russian politics continue to play out. History will help remind us what has happened, and warning signs to look for. Will Russia’s Far East could be the future of democracy for the nation? Or will we take a stroll down memory lane and see a repeat of history only five years ago? Surely we will discover the truth in time.
[i] Standard Oil began manufacturing 42 gallon barrels that were blue to be used for transporting petroleum. The use of a blue barrel, abbreviated “bbl,” guaranteed a buyer that this was a 42-gallon barrel.