The Center for Strategic Research (CSR) is no friend to Russia’s opposition. Founded by Vladimir Putin’s associates to write the agenda for his first presidency in 2000, the center has always been loyal to the Kremlin. Its supervisory board is chaired by Putin’s deputy premier, Dmitri Kozak. Yet it was the CSR that in March 2011, when pro-democracy protests in Russia were nine months away and seemed inconceivable, warned of an “accelerating delegitimization of the Russian authorities, and the population’s growing mistrust toward … President Dmitri Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and United Russia Party.” At the time, many experts laughed. Today, they are listening.
The latest forecast from CSR President Mikhail Dmitriev warns the authorities that “mass discontent with the status-quo has spread beyond the large cities which initiated the protests … [to] small and medium towns, rural areas, and industrial centers.” According to the CSR, the existential problem for the system is that it is unable to satisfy neither the demands of the expanding middle class (rule of law, political competition, independent judiciary), nor the expectations of the rural and small-town population (growth in budgetary spending). A second wave of the global recession, and a fall in the oil price below $80 per barrel, in Dmitriev’s analysis, will trigger a new political crisis in Russia, necessitating the dismissal of Medvedev’s government and new parliamentary elections (which Dmitriev forecasts for 2015), likely to be won by opposition parties. As for Putin himself, “in a year or a year-and-a-half,” his approval ratings may fall to the dismal levels of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s or Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s, so that by 2018 “his main problem may be [finding] an exit strategy.”
A new challenge to the Kremlin’s legitimacy may soon emerge from Russia’s regional governors who, starting this October, will once again be elected rather than appointed—a direct result of the December protests. Thus, in Moscow, in Dmitriev’s estimation, “it is almost impossible to elect a mayor who would be loyal to the Kremlin”—a sign of the changed political atmosphere in the capital. Perhaps the main conclusion from the CSR forecast is that Russia’s pro-democracy movement cannot be eradicated. For the regime “to try to weed out the demand for political competition in the country would require such a level of confrontation with the dissatisfied part of society that the political system will not survive for long,” concludes Dmitriev. “I do not think the authorities are prepared for such a risk.”
Indeed, it seems they are not—though their natural instinct is still for a crackdown. Suffice to mention the five-year prison term for Aleksei Kozlov, an entrepreneur and the husband of Olga Romanova, one of the organizers of the Moscow protest rallies; the detention of dozens of activists (including opposition leader Boris Nemtsov) at a protest against the anti-opposition smears on state television; and the sentencing of another protest organizer, Sergei Udaltsov, to 10 days in prison.
Yet Udaltsov was released after just one day. Maxim Petlin, another opposition activist imprisoned since August 2011, was suddenly granted bail last week. Equally suddenly, the Russian justice ministry decided to implement last year’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights and restore the previously revoked registration of the opposition Republican Party (led by Vladimir Ryzhkov), which will now be eligible to participate in elections at all levels. Meanwhile, a new law easing the registration of political parties—another December concession—will now go into effect in mid-April, not in 2013, as previously planned.
Last week was also notable for the “Chernogolovka precedent”—a new phenomenon in Russian politics. In the March 4th mayoral election in the town of Chernogolovka (27 miles northeast of Moscow), an independent candidate defeated the candidate of Putin’s United Russia party. The authorities, unhappy with the results, annulled the election. Angry residents, determined to defend their votes, began gathering near the local government building. The following day, the decision was abruptly reversed. The opposition victory was allowed to stand.
“As the time limits to Vladimir Putin’s rule are becoming clearer, more and more people … will start thinking about how to position themselves after Putin is gone,” observed CSR President Mikhail Dmitriev. “They will start defecting to the camp of [Putin’s] opponents who are growing in strength.” The next test of strength will come on May 6th, the day before Putin’s inauguration, when his opponents are planning a mass rally on the streets of Moscow to show that a growing number of Russians no longer consider him a legitimate leader.
Photo Credit: Bogomolov.PL