One of Russia's main domestic challenges in the near future is fragmentation. Although president Vladimir Putin's approval rating is still very high – 68% in September according to the independent Levada Centre – there are a few elements suggesting that the "invisible pact of stability" that has bonded the ruling power and the people over the last twenty years is now slightly damaged. Polls show dissimilar data. Besides the president's approval rating, the government-disapproval rate reached 55% in September and 41% of the population considered that the country was on the wrong track. Moscow’s summer demonstrations and other episodes of mobilisation that have been characterizing Russian social, local and political landscapes during the last two years are noteworthy cases. Is this a sign of a mobilisation awakening after the wave of 2011-2012 protests? Undoubtedly, 2018 and 2019 witnessed a rise in civil and social protests underlying the presence of different kinds of discontent that could be classified in three categories: social, local, and political.
First of all, social discontent. The worsening of living standards, the erosion of the middle class and the worsening of pensioners' daily lives are major threats to government support, since it has built its strength on the improvement of economic standards and political stability. What is at stake is the cohesion of Russian society, whose middle class is fragmented by a growing "schism": two social groups depending on two sources of income – either the private sector or public administration – present conflicting interests and visions. The former has suffered more from the economic crisis and is more likely to support social mobilisation, whereas the latter represents a strong supporter of state policies.
From April to August 2018, the disapproval rating of the president, the prime minister and the government rose respectively from 17% to 30%, from 57% to 71% and from 53% to 66%. This growing dissatisfaction was clearly linked to the presentation of pension reform in the summer of 2018, which immediately provoked a wave of nationwide demonstrations. This drastic retirement law aimed at gradually raising the pension age for men from 60 to 65 years old and for women from 55 to 60, despite a low life expectancy – 77 years for women and only 67 years for men, according to the World Bank. This situation triggered significant discontent among 29% of the population – 43 million pensioners in 2016 out of 146 million inhabitants, already affected by a second demographic crisis. In addition, the average pension is very low (14,144 rubles in 2018 – not quite 200 euros) and not adjusted to the cost of living. Pensioners are paying the highest price for the economic crisis since 2014, taking into consideration increasing inflation. According to the Russian State Statistics Service, almost 21 million Russians live in poverty, and among them many are pensioners.
Secondly, local discontents, be they ecological, “Not in My BackYard” (NIMBY) or similar. Two cases proved how spontaneous protests related to local issues can quickly mobilise many people to challenge regional and even state authorities.
In Yekaterinburg, unplanned rallies with thousands of residents of different ages and social backgrounds took place in May over the decision to build a cathedral in the central park of the city. The protests lasted for more than a week with episodes of clashes between protesters and the police, riots and arrests. It ended only after the intervention of the Russian president and the suspension of the construction plans.
In the Arkhangelsk region, an unauthorized rally of about 2,000/3,000 protesters took place last April, asking for the resignation of governor Igor Orlov. Protests were ongoing since August 2018 in reaction to a landfill building project aimed at solving Moscow’s trash problem. Organised nationwide rallies took place for similar reasons last February in 30 regions with the slogan "Russia is not a dump". The work has for now been suspended, but Moscow’s garbage problem remains open and unsolved.
These two emblematic examples illustrate how local activism can suddenly become very powerful and well organised, gaining the support of public opinion and defying regional or state authorities. It proves that Russian citizens can be extremely concerned with local, ecological or concrete daily issues, whatever their political involvement or social backgrounds. It should be noted that, in spite of moments of tensions, authorities have ultimately acceded to these local claims. Is this new way of protesting "changing the country's political map"?
Indeed, there is growing political discontent. Protests became truly political in June when journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested for alleged drug-dealing charges, provoking unauthorised rallies with thousands of protesters in his support, denouncing the police’s behaviour and advocating for media freedom. The high number of arrests during the rally unquestionably fed people's discontent. Even Golunov’s release could not stop the discontent. On the contrary, it exploded during the protests that took place in July and August because of the exclusion of opposition candidates for the Moscow-Duma elections. In a "chicken and egg" situation, this led to several other arrests that were followed by additional unauthorised protests. In the end, the ruling party, United Russia, lost nearly one third of its seats in the Moscow Duma.
One of the main factors nourishing protests was the reaction from state authorities, which have been condemned by a part of the population. Nevertheless, public opinion seems polarized into different groups: protesters against state supporters, young people against older people, internet users against TV spectators. Hundreds of Russian Orthodox priests even signed an open letter in defence of the imprisoned protesters and asked for a more impartial justice.
Secondly, the "invisible pact" between the government and the population based on economic and political stability worked well for those who witnessed the chaotic and dramatic period of the "liberal" years in the '90s, brilliantly symbolised by Alexei Balabanov's Brat movies. Stability was the only priority. This was quite well achieved at a price of depolitisation. Nevertheless, as the economic and social crises deepened, this pact of stability lost its premises and gave way to more pessimism and criticism.
Finally, there is another key element to consider: the generational factor. The people most involved in the demonstrations grew up in the 2000s, a period of economic prosperity and optimism. Young people did not witness the Soviet "defitsit" (дефицит) or the fearful anarchy of the 90s. Since they grew up in a stable state with the possibility to travel abroad, to buy whatever item, to run a private business, stability seems to be a given and is no longer on their agenda. This generational conflict of paradigms could deeply challenge Russian society.
All in all, these different discontents mobilize various social groups (young vs old people, provinces vs the capital), present diverse claims (social, local, or political) and can sometimes stand for antagonist ideologies. Many pensioners are nostalgic about the Soviet Union whereas the latter is abhorred by Alexey Navalny's supporters. As long as these three areas of discontent remain fragmented, the current political order is unlikely to be significantly disrupted.