Putin Faces Russian Public Protests

More than 120,000 anti-Putin protesters marched through Moscow on Feb. 4 demanding political reform. (Photo:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won the presidential election on March 4 with an overwhelming majority of votes: 63.6 percent versus 17.2 by his closest competitor, the candidate from the Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov. Despite the overwhelming victory, Putin is no longer supported by almost all Russians, as he once was.

In December 2011, thousands of people gathered for opposition rallies in many major Russian cities, calling for changes in policy and expressing indignation at the rigging of the recent parliamentary elections won by the ruling party United Russia. The biggest rally, at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, had about 25,000 participants. This was impossible to imagine some five years ago when opposition rallies usually gathered only several dozens people.

The police used to enclose Pushkin Square, the regular venue of opposition rallies in Moscow, with railing, leaving only one or two entrances, and passing crowds of people had no intention to join the handful of protesters. These days, the opposition feels so confident that one of the opposition leaders, Aleksei Navalny, stated in a Time interview, "We are ready to take over the Kremlin, but we don't intend to do that because we are peaceful people." Meanwhile, while the opposition urges Putin to resign, it doesn't have a leader with broad support across the country.

Russians strongly supported Putin when he was able to improve the national economy and stop the war in Chechnya after his coming to power in 2000, but now some experts, such as political scientist Oleg Podvintsev, say that Putin is different now. Podvintsev adds, "Russia is not in the same situation it was 10 years ago. … Russia badly needs new, innovative ideas, approaches, decisions, while the tandem [of Putin and Medvedev] doesn't have them."

President of the Center for Political Research Mikhail Dmitriev predicts that the level of political support for Putin is likely to continue declining, and that by the end of his six-year term in office Putin will find himself in the situation president Yeltsin was in at the end of the 1990s, with Putin having to invent a strategy for withdrawing from power and finding a successor as president. This assumption is supported by the analytical report released by the Center for Political Research in 2011, which states that the mood for protests is growing among the Russian public, and that the society wants a new leader.

Most criticism for Putin and the Russian authorities comes from people displeased with the stagnation of an economic policy aimed primarily at selling oil, natural gas and other raw materials and largely ignoring the development of industrial production and technologies. Some critics are already drawing parallels with the Putin era and the Brezhnev "stagnation period" in the former Soviet Union, noting that while Brezhnev was in power for 18 years, Putin might stay in power even longer.

Many Russians from the province, seeing no prospects to make sufficient earnings, migrate to the bigger cities, and people from bigger cities leave the country for working abroad, which results in the depopulation of the provincial areas, with every tenth Russian citizen living in the Moscow area (14 million people out of 140 million).

Russian society is split between the people from Moscow and the provinces—the rich and the poor, those longing to return to the Soviet era and those detesting it. Any newspaper article or film about criticism of the Soviet era causes heated debates, with debaters divided in two factions. After 20 years of post-Soviet Russia, many people see no real achievements and feel they had better lives under the Soviet Union.

Putin felt this mood and promised to make changes for the better, publishing several articles on different issues shortly before the presidential election, where he wrote about his intentions to fight corruption, improve public health and social security, and to modernize the Russian army. Some of Putin's supporters, such as Speaker of the Upper Chamber of the Russian Parliament Valentina Matvienko say that Russians will see a "renewed" Putin, with a new agenda for the next stage of the country's development. Meanwhile, some experts, such as political scientist Sergey Markov, say that Putin's "renovation"—if it comes at all—will result from the pressure exerted by the segment of society that is tired and demands change.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Andrei Nesterov.