Winter of Discontent

In Russia, a wave of protests and public discontent in the wake of the financial crisis may spell danger for the ruling clique

 

Police thwart a banned anti-Kremlin protest in Moscow early this year | Photo: Sam Osmoothie

At first glance, it didn’t look as if Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his presidential protégé, Dmitri Medvedev had anything to worry about as a wave of protests spread over the vast country reflecting economic discontent. They had faced protests before, as in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin’s rule, and the approach was exactly the same – numerous arrests followed by positive reports broadcast by state-run media.

But when over 2,000 people recently took to the streets of Vladivostok, chanting anti-government slogans and calling for Putin’s resignation, it soon became clear that something else was going on. The Pacific harbor city became the starting point of a tidal wave of public anger after the police stopped a peaceful rally against the import duties on automobiles and arrested over 100 people.

What followed was a series of rallies in every part of the country, adding to the sense of angst generated by other negatives – the fall in oil prices, a key source of Russia’s revenue, collapsing stock markets, and rising unemployment as enterprises began mass layoffs. Suddenly, Mother Russia under Putin’s stern but benevolent hand was no longer quite the safe haven that the Kremlin had tried to project.

Putin played the U.S. card, to no avail. Washington, he said was responsible for the world economic crisis – and the spillover to Russia. Things will be better by the end of 2009, he promised. Mass media loyal to the state enforced his message. But the protests continued – and will likely heat up along with the warmer weather.

“When spring comes, we’ll be holding rallies every weekend,” says Maria Batanova, 27, an activist in the “Tiger” Internet protest platform during an interview with Press TV. “I didn’t realize how many unhappy people there are in our country.”

Still, in a country with Russia’s authoritarian history, the sporadic and isolated protests may not be enough to threaten Putin or Medvedev.

Political analyst Dimitriy Oreshkin believes that even if the demonstrations grow, the police will manage to keep the upper hand.  The problem, he says, is the lack of a broader organization linking the protesters into one large movement.

A potential greater threat to the leadership appears to be growing disenchantment on the part of the political and economic elite that grew prosperous and powerful with Putin’s blessings – and that now increasingly blames him for Russia’s woes. This elite is well informed, much better than the rest of the Russian population, and realizes how serious the situation is and has a lot more to lose. And Medvedev, who took office last year with Putin’s support, is slowly starting to present himself as a more-independent player, not afraid to criticize the government for its inability to implement effective anti-crisis measures. He recently noted that only 30 percent of the promised measures have been put into practice – and boldly took Putin’s government to task for “working more slowly that what the situation requires.“

While he didn’t mention Putin’s name specifically, he didn’t have to. The economy is traditionally a responsibility of the prime minister.

“Everyone who has an idea of politics knows that in six months, the situation here will be catastrophic,” says Oreshkin in an interview with Press TV. “Medvedev clearly tries to show that Putin is responsible for the economy. And regardless of the warmth and niceties they share for each other, it is clear that there is a rift.”

And things are expected to get worse before they get better, according to almost every measure – all potentially threatening Putin’s formerly charmed position:

 

Oil prices: Benchmark Russian crude that traded for up to $150 a barrel last summer is now around $40 a barrel. That translates into a likely budget deficit, considering the country based its cost estimates for 2009 at $95 a barrel.

 

Monetary reserve: During the oil boom, Russia accumulated the third largest monetary reserve in the world. Since August 2008, however, the government has spent over $200 billion to defend the ruble – leaving the reserve at around $380 billion and rapidly diminishing.

 

The ruble: Only last summer, Medvedev was boasting that the ruble would become a major world currency.  That was before the crisis struck – the ruble has now lost around 30 percent of its value against the euro and the US dollar.

 

Inflation: Officially expected to rise to 13%, though many independent analysts find this to be an optimistic estimate. Others say it could rise as high as twice this much, though figures remain ambiguous.

 

Unemployment:  After ballooning to 25 percent since last summer to nearly 6 million by the end of last year, it is expected to get much worse in the coming months.

So, while Putin may be able to deal with the protests, the growing economic hardships are another story. The speed with which these indicators are deteriorating could put a dent in his popularity from which he may be unable to recover, at least not in time for the next presidential elections.

 

Eva Manasieva, a native of Bulgaria, is Vienna Bureau Chief for Press TV, the first Iranian international news channel, with headquarters in Tehran and broadcasting from bureaus in strategic cities around the world. Its stated goal is to deliver “unbiased reporting of controversial global news, with a special emphasis on Middle East current affairs,” as well as “portraying viewpoints often ignored by current mainstream media outlets.” www.presstv.com


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