Opinion | Putin Isn’t as Strong as He Looks

For the first time in close to a decade, the rule of President Vladimir Putin of Russia may be facing a sustained challenge.

Over the past two weekends, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of cities and towns across the country to voice their disapproval of the arrest of the anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny. This impressive display of dissent has been met, increasingly, with force. On Sunday, over 5,000 people were detained — the most ever on a single day in Russia — including 1,600 in Moscow alone.

This strategy of suppression was successful before. In the winter of 2011 and ’12, thousands of people demonstrated against electoral fraud by the ruling United Russia party and Mr. Putin’s impending return to the presidency. The protests, hailed by some as the beginning of the end for Mr. Putin, were eventually stifled by a combination of police and judicial repression. To judge from Sunday’s deliberate show of force, Mr. Putin assumes he can ride out this latest turbulence.

He may well be right. The odds seem stacked against the protesters, who remain a tiny fraction of the population. Though his approval ratings have declined from previous highs, Mr. Putin still commands substantial popular support. There is little sign of rifts within the Russian elite, and the government has a formidable repressive apparatus at its disposal. The Kremlin also has a firm grip on the political system: United Russia holds 335 out of 450 seats in the State Duma, and the rest are mostly held by parties that back the government.

But we should be wary of overstating Mr. Putin’s power and the solidity of the political system over which he presides. Neither is as strong as they might seem.

Often depicted as an authoritarian monolith, the system is something stranger and more contradictory. Though fundamentally undemocratic — since the fall of Communism, no opposition party in Russia has ever won power — it still derives its legitimacy from the support of the electorate and from an apparent observance of constitutional norms. It’s an “imitation democracy,” as the Russian political scientist Dmitri Furman termed it. However autocratic Mr. Putin may wish to be, he still requires a facade of legality and regular elections.

And this is the system’s weakness: It creates a tiny window for the populace to not only voice their discontent, but also to make it have political consequences.

This is where the current movement led by Mr. Navalny differs from the 2011 and ’12 protests. Alongside his anti-corruption message, he has developed a “smart voting” strategy designed to draw voters to whichever candidates are best placed to beat United Russia incumbents, turning scattered protest votes into a more targeted rejection of the status quo.

First tried out in local elections in 2019 and deployed again last year, the strategy’s gains so far are hard to gauge — but it represents a novel challenge to Mr. Putin and his party. United Russia is polling at about 30 percent and will be looking nervously over its shoulder: Elections to the national parliament are due in September.

There is plenty of fuel for unrest. Average disposable incomes in Russia dropped by more than 10 percent from January to September of last year, as the pandemic sent an already sluggish economy into downturn. Living standards remain stubbornly low: In 2020 nearly 20 million Russians were below the official poverty line. In this context, Mr. Navalny’s anti-corruption message — in particular, his videos detailing the luxuries that the country’s rulers have lavished on themselves at the taxpayers’ expense — has hit home.

Perhaps most alarming for the Kremlin, that message has resonated especially with younger Russians. A generation that has grown up entirely under Mr. Putin’s rule is more willing than its elders to take to the streets and reject it.

The government’s aggressive response to the protests is clearly intended as a show of strength. But it also points to the underlying brittleness of the consensus on which the system rests. In other countries of the former Soviet Union — such as Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia — contested elections have set off movements that resulted in transfers of power.

The Kremlin wants to snuff out even the possibility of such an outcome. Since Mr. Navalny’s arrest, it has arrested several of his close aides, and a parole hearing on Tuesday could send Mr. Navalny to a penal colony for up to three and a half years. Any further waves of protest are likely to be beaten back with force.

But over the coming weeks and months, Mr. Putin faces a dilemma. Cracking down too severely would only fuel dissent, while rigging the September elections too blatantly would damage the democratic facade on which Mr. Putin’s power depends. Allow Mr. Navalny’s movement to grow, however, and the Kremlin may face an electoral challenge for which it is unprepared.

There is a long way to go before Russia can turn its “imitation democracy” regime into a living, breathing one. But for the first time in a long time, Mr. Putin is not holding all the cards.

Tony Wood is a research associate and lecturer in Latin American studies at Princeton University. He is the author of “Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War.”

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