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July 10, 2019

Change in Russia

Opinion

July 10, 2019

In 2014-2015, the occupation of Crimea sent Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings soaring to as much as 86 percent and kept them high for a few years. Over the past few months, however, his popularity has steadily declined and reached 66 percent – roughly as much as it was back in 2012-2013, when he was facing mass protests.

This trend is related to the decline in people’s real incomes after Russia’s recent economic crisis. One event, in particular, contributed greatly to Putin’s rising unpopularity: the 2018 decision to raise the retirement age.

The optics get worse when citizens are polled on major political institutions; roughly two-thirds of Russians disapprove of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his government, while a solid majority hold negative views on the State Duma and local governors.

In Moscow, traditionally a hotbed of discontent, the ruling United Russia party, formally headed by Medvedev, has become so unpopular that its candidates have been forced to run as independents in the city council elections, due in September.

The low popularity of those in power, however, has not really translated yet to major gains for the Russian opposition, which has struggled to mobilise its own support base for a variety of reasons.

First, various legal and bureaucratic barriers the Kremlin has put in place over the past few years to prevent popular mobilisation and free electoral competition are working. Opposition candidates are disqualified from running for office on a regular basis either on flimsy “technical” grounds or simply for failing to fulfil a variety of impossible requirements.

The upcoming Moscow council elections are a case in point. Opposition politicians are forced to run as independents because they have not been allowed to register a party. The main opposition leader Alexei Navalny has made nine attempts since 2012, but each time his party’s application has been rejected.

By law, independent candidates have to collect three percent of the number of voters in their districts in order to register for the race.

But as Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s strategist, has argued, this is an almost impossible task. When you do the math - ie from the available voters, you subtract those who have left on their summer holiday and cross out those who would not even open the door to a campaigner, then take off all those suspicious of signing official documents, then again remove those reluctant to hand over their ID details and finally eliminate those who are not even registered to vote in the district they live in - you might indeed get close to three percent.

In practice, it would be a miracle to get this number for a few other reasons, including thugs who intimidate and attack signature collectors and mistakes that might have been made when personal data was copied or that might be imagined by electoral commission officials eager to disqualify the opposition and please their superiors. That is unless you are a pro-Kremlin candidate, in which case, the needed signatures just emerge miraculously from the ether.

Thus, while opposition candidates, like Ilya Yashin, are quite popular among their constituents and have good chances of winning in a fair election, many might not even make on the ballot.

But all these legal and technical barriers are by far not the greatest challenge the opposition is facing. Rather, it is the political apathy of the Russian population and its general aversion to political change.

Unlike the late 1980s, when there was a huge and self-evident gulf in the standard of living in the USSR and Western countries, which politicised the general population, today most Russian citizens enjoy much better economic prospects, even with the recent recession.

Excerpted from: ‘Change is coming to Russia, but very slowly’.

Courtesy: Aljazeera.com