June 13, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: Protesting Putin and Russia’s Status Quo
Across Russia, thousands of people gathered on June 12 in what were some of the largest anti-government protests the country has seen in years. The protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and almost a hundred other cities were focused on government corruption and a status quo that, for those protesting, is one of restriction and rot. While the level of opposition to President Putin—who has held a near monopoly on power in the country either as president or prime minister since 1999—is not currently sufficient to threaten his rule, it is highly significant. It suggests a burgeoning and vocal opposition movement popular within Russian youth, spearheaded by Alexei Navalny, who has emerged as Putin’s most outspoken political opponent within a highly regulated system. If the current level of popular opposition to Putin is sustained, it could represent the most serious challenge to the Russian leader over the course of his 18 years in power.
Navalny was among as many as 1,000 people arrested for involvement in the June 12 demonstrations. He was immediately sentenced to 30 days in jail for organizing an illegal protest; he had previously obtained a permit for a smaller protest but changed the venue, citing the lack of amplifying speakers, among other things. The mass protests, which spread across the country—including Siberia—were timed to coincide with Russia Day, which marked the 1990 declaration of Russian sovereignty in the last days of the Soviet Union. That sense of Russian identity and pride has been perhaps the greatest strength in Putin’s long rule, as he has essentially merged his identity and support with that of a resurgent and proud Russia. The clash of protestors among the Russia Day celebrations has a meaning and symbolism that will not go unnoticed in the Kremlin, which responded with a massive police presence.
Putin is up for reelection in May 2018. He is widely expected to win in convincing fashion. While opinion polls in Russia are difficult to reliably conduct, they have consistently shown that Putin has strong support—upwards of 80 percent in some polls. Navalny, who had organized similarly large protests across Russia in March, hopes to run against Putin, though it is not certain he will be on the ballot. Still, the protests he has led have been the largest since Putin resumed the presidency in 2012. The March protests apparently shook Putin, who blamed the U.S. for encouraging them. U.S.-Russia relations have plummeted since then with almost no uptick, even with the new administration.
The U.S. government issued a statement denouncing the massive crackdown against the June 12 protests. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer read a statement that noted “detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers and journalists is an affront to core democratic values.” The statement went on to note that the Russian people deserved a transparent and accountable government that tolerated dissent. It remains to be seen how the Kremlin responds—if it does—to the White House’s public rebuke. Putin generally wears Western objections, condemnations, resolutions, and even sanctions of as a badge of honor. The only objections and condemnations that might affect him are those from within, such as those seen again in Moscow and over a hundred other cities on June 12.
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