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Putin’s star is fading

For democracy activists in Russia, the real victory this week isn’t that Vladimir Putin’s party performed so poorly in Sunday’s Moscow city council election. That’s just a consequence of a far more important change in the country: the shattering of a feeling of helplessness in the face of the government’s authority. In Russia, conformism is…

For democracy activists in Russia, the real victory this week isn’t that Vladimir Putin’s party performed so poorly in Sunday’s Moscow city council election.

That’s just a consequence of a far more important change in the country: the shattering of a feeling of helplessness in the face of the government’s authority.

In Russia, conformism is the safest course for a vast majority of people. “Initiative shall be punished,” went a popular Soviet-era saying.

For opposition politicians, the greatest challenge isn’t the government’s systematic efforts to ban them from standing in elections or crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters. It’s something Russians call beznadyoga — a collective feeling of hopelessness that paralyzes any sustained effort to overturn the status quo and marginalizes those who try.

It’s this aspect of the collective Russian psyche that the opposition, led by Alexei Navalny, smashed on Sunday, after a two-month marathon of protests in the Russian capital.

Change comes excruciatingly slowly in Russia. Brief periods of optimism typically end in catastrophic upheavals.

The formal result of the city council election was, perhaps, not all that spectacular. Liberal candidates, barred from standing themselves, had to resort to promoting a tactical voting campaign that unseated nearly half of all Kremlin-backed candidates, but also saw most of those seats go to the Communists and two smaller parties, which are under the influence of the Kremlin to some degree.

And yet, the campaign’s success has endowed opposition and protest leaders, including Navalny, with greater legitimacy in the Russian capital than many of the Kremlin-backed politicians who were only able to secure their seats through manipulation and electoral fraud.

Change comes excruciatingly slowly in Russia. Brief periods of optimism typically end in catastrophic upheavals. But there is reason to believe that this time Navalny’s optimism and confidence has infected an increasingly large swath of the voting population — and empowered a new group of liberal opposition leaders.

The Kremlin is right to be alarmed. In a poll conducted by the independent pollster Levada Center last month, 37 percent of Muscovites supported the citywide protests, while some 27 percent said they did not. Those are striking numbers in a highly centralized country where the survival of the political regime depends on who controls the capital.

Other regions are also showing signs of following in Moscow’s footsteps. The ruling party may have won most of the regional elections that also took place on Sunday, but it lost many local council seats nationwide.

Alexei Navalny and his family | Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images

In Khabarovsk Territory, for example, Putin’s party retained just two out of 36 seats in a regional assembly it used to control. In St. Petersburg, the election was marred by what appeared to be blatant fraud that will almost certainly add fuel to the already raging fire.

For Putin, the problem is how to contain the rapidly spreading discontent.

He won’t be able to repeat the move that — following the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2011-2012 — caused his popularity ratings to shoot through the roof: the annexation of Crimea.

There is simply no other piece of land in Russia’s vicinity that would evoke the same feeling of historical injustice, with an overwhelmingly pro-Russian population with deep family and personal links to Russia.

Nor are there any upheavals in sight on the scale of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution that could turn any other territory into a “low-hanging fruit” for Putin to pick. Crucially, there is very little appetite in Russian society for territorial expansion that can’t be convincingly framed as saving “our people” from imminent threat.

Other methods of shoring up support haven’t yielded good results. In the five years since the Crimean annexation, the Kremlin tried to win the trust of Muscovites by pouring billions into a very thorough reconstruction of Moscow streets and transport infrastructure.

The move turned the capital into an attractive and liveable city — and certainly the most modern in the former USSR, including in the Baltic countries — but it did little to mitigate the protests. In fact, the lack of public debate about the reconstruction, coupled with rampant corruption and the fact that the city became a gigantic construction site for a few years, angered many more voters.

The regime Putin created reflected the expectations of Russian society two decades ago. But that generation is giving way to the next.

Perhaps Putin’s best hope for a breather would be to strike an agreement with Ukraine to end the armed conflict in the Donbas region — and, by extension, Russia’s isolation on the world stage.

There are clear signs of détente between the two countries since the comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelenskiy took office, including a large scale prisoner swap last week and ramped up diplomatic efforts by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron to normalize relations between Russia and the West.

But just as Crimea eventually failed to change the trajectory of Putin’s political decline, so will any other foreign policy stunt the Kremlin could conceivably come up with.

Russia’s slide toward authoritarianism under Putin has obscured tectonic cultural shifts that are pushing the country in the opposite direction. And now the cracks are coming to the surface.

People have been getting wealthier, more cosmopolitan and have largely recovered from the traumas of the Soviet era and the turbulent 1990s. New social strata have emerged, along with a vibrant civil society. A whole new generation is coming of age that wants to see something other than Putin before they grow old.

The regime Putin created reflected the expectations of Russian society two decades ago. But that generation is giving way to the next. And Putin won’t be able to outrun them.

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Riga.

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