By Matthew Wisneski, Contributing Writer

It seems fitting for the unpredictable and tumultuous year of 2020 that Russia is now literally and metaphorically ablaze. While Siberian wildfires have scorched an area larger than Portugal, Russian civil society continues to turn up the heat against its government, security services, and president. With widespread allegations of a rigged plebiscite, arrests of high-profile cultural and opposition figures, and massive protests in Khabarovsk, the past several weeks have exposed deep fault lines within Russian society and a simmering dissatisfaction with Putin and his United Russia cohort. Now, a reinvigorated civil society raises two crucial questions: how fragile is Putin, and what happens next?

Years of evidence clearly demonstrate that the Kremlin will go to great lengths to silence and even eliminate its critics. The suspected Kremlin role in the murders of journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, as well as the imprisonment and exile of Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, exhibits how ruthless Putin can be with his opponents. However, the attacks on critics are increasing at an alarming rate, even by Kremlin standards. Since the start of July, Russian security forces have arrested and convicted Gulag historian and activist Yuri Dmitriev, whose research into Gulag crimes is unpopular with the Kremlin, for allegedly exaggerated pornography charges; detained former journalist and Roscosmos aide Ivan Safronov for state treason and cooperation with Czech intelligence; continually harassed Pussy Riot member and journalist Pyotr Verzilov; and fined LGBT activist and feminist Yulia Tsvetkova for her drawings of same-sex couples, which apparently violates Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. Most shocking of all these events is the recent poisoning of head opposition politician Alexei Navalny, an event that immediately attracted suspicions of Kremlin culpability. In legislative matters, the State Duma is attempting to silence criticism of the Crimean annexation by expanding the definition of extremism and fining government officials for insulting Russian citizens, based on a specific list of insults developed by the government.

These incidents would be concerning in themselves, but especially after a plebiscite to approve constitutional amendments—which was roundly criticized by independent monitors as unfair— Russian civil society may have found the sparks to ignite popular protest once again. Over the past month in the city of Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East, thousands of residents gathered for the largest and most intense protests in the region since 1991 in support of their popular governor Sergei Furgal. On July 9, FSB authorities unexpectedly arrested Furgal on spurious organized murder charges dating back to 2004 and 2005. Several days later, Putin replaced him with the young, ambitious, Kremlin-sponsored Mikhail Degtyarev. Even weeks after Furgal’s arrests, protests in Khabarovsk still attracted approximately 30,000 people. These events represent perhaps the most significant political challenge to the two decades of the Pax Putina. 

First, there is the question of the fragility of political power in Moscow. Of course, President Putin has managed to exert political power over the country for two decades in his roles as president and prime minister, and as a result, Russia has made major strides to achieve relative stability and global influence compared to twenty years ago. Yet at the same time, there are several important constraining factors that limit economic growth, development, and security. One major problem is that the Russian economy is built on energy and weapons production. As one of the world’s top three oil producers (after Saudi Arabia and the United States), Russia’s economy is highly vulnerable to shocks in oil prices, as seen in 2014 and 2020. Homegrown technology and IT sector development lags far behind the West, prompting Putin to promise large reductions for insurance premium rates and income taxes for IT companies in an attempt to lure new talent to Russia. Cooperation with and reliance on Chinese technology firms—such as Huawei and its 5G technology that Moscow cannot produce itself—is a temporarily stable strategy until the energy market fluctuates and decreases the value of Moscow’s most important exports, or until Beijing pushes Moscow out of the arms market by reverse-engineering Russian weapons and equipment and developing even better technology. This does not even factor in sanctions and the ensuing economic isolation, causing lackluster economic growth and stifling real income growth to less than 1% annually. With the pandemic set to further stunt Russian economic growth, these factors combine to present a formidable challenge for Putin as he attempts to maintain Russia’s power status in an increasingly bipolar world. 

Many will interpret the 78% approval rating of the June 25-July1 constitutional amendment referendum as a sign of Putin’s total control over the country and his unofficial coronation until 2036. Yet this evaluation does not account for independent data from the Nyet! (“No!”) campaign volunteers, whose exit polls found that 51% of Muscovites and 61% of Saint Petersburg voters apparently opposed the amendments. These figures may not represent public opinion outside the two major cities, but they do indicate that the vote was probably far closer than official statistics have reported and exposes fault lines within society. Furthermore, according to a June 30 report from the Levada Center, Russia’s most reliable public opinion center, only 43% of respondents believed that Russia was moving in the right direction, compared to 52% in January. Putin’s approval rating fell from 69% in February to a low of 59% in May and stands at 60% currently, marking his lowest approval ratings since he entered office in 2000. More than likely, the recent FSB arrests of high-profile cultural and opposition figures will not help his ratings in the coming months, as even pro-Kremlin media figures produced a three-minute video in support of their jailed former colleague Ivan Safronov.

So why does the Kremlin feel the need to crack down again on civil society? Many opposition figures and international observers claim that the plebiscite results were corrupted—citing occasions of people voting on tree stumps, playgrounds, buses, from the trunks of cars, and even in the woods—so perhaps one explanation for the recent arrests  attempt to threaten those who question the legitimacy of Putin’s power and his imposition of conservative, religious, and nationalist values into political institutions. Among other amendments, one specifically defines marriage as a “union between a man and a woman” and another designates the Russian language as “the language of the state-forming ethnicity,” prioritizing Russian national identity that uneasily sits with Russia’s incredibly rich multiethnic history. Perhaps the most significant amendment is one that redefines the nature of the state by changing Article 67.2 to read: 

“The Russian Federation, united by a thousand-year history, preserving the memory of its ancestors, who gave us ideals and faith in God, as well as continuity in the development of the Russian state, recognizes the historical unity of the state.” [author’s emphasis]

Previously, the 1993 constitution never included God and instead defined religious institutions as “separate from the state,” but such an edit reflects the increasingly rigid interpretations of liberalism, secularism, and non-Russian multiculturalism as attacks on the identity of the Russian state itself. However, in a system that is fixed against opposition movements and figures, Russian leaders are now ill-equipped to deal with a burgeoning civil society that currently attracts support from more voices than ever before, even from Russian Orthodox priests

Second, what happens next? This author would not suggest that a new revolution is coming to Russia but instead would question the assumption that President Putin will easily survive a re-election in 2024. When he “wins,” likely falsifying numbers along the way, we may see protests on an even larger scale than those in Moscow in 2011-12 and 2019. However, before any opposition can genuinely vie for power, splintered movements must unite themselves under either a leader or a strong party coalition. For the recent plebiscite, the opposition could not decide between voting against the amendments or boycotting the vote, the latter option being the choice of perhaps Russia’s most popular opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. The boycotts took away significant opposition votes and more importantly shows that the opposition has a lot of work ahead of them. However, the summer of 2020 uniquely showcases the simultaneously secure and precarious position of the Putin regime. With the summertime arrests of reporters, film directors, academics, and prominent civil society figures, the security services and the Kremlin are certainly acting as if they feel threatened. For now, threat perceptions will probably only translate to a cycle of repression and protest, but the massive post-election protests in Belarus show the limited effectiveness of a political strategy built solely on subjugation and not on representation.

While arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution, James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers No. 10 that a government could approach dissent in two ways: eliminate the causes of dissent through equality of opinion or confiscation of liberty or to control the effects of dissent by refining them through a republican form of government. Moscow seems to be choosing the former option, supposedly not learning the lesson of the demise of its predecessor Soviet state: no matter how hard a government tries, it is impossible to hide forever a poor quality of living, poor economic growth, and social oppression. In this author’s view, political power in Moscow feels more fragile than it has in the Putin era to date. The coronavirus, economic troubles, and repression are igniting the sparks of another blaze in Russian civil society that could resemble the ferocious Siberian wildfires.

Matthew Wisneski is a second-year graduate student at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service, pursuing a Master of Arts in Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2019 with a B.A. in Political Science and Russian.