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Russian Opposition to Test Putin's Popularity Amid Financial Crisis

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

The political opposition in Russia has been under siege recently, pushed increasingly to the periphery by a wave of patriotism that has washed over the country. 

President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is more popular than ever, at least according to polling by the Levada Center. Following his decision to annex Crimea and Sevastopol in March 2014, Putin's approval rating spiked to around 85 percent and has held steady ever since.

The year ahead, however, could prove more challenging for Putin than his astronomical approval ratings suggest.

Falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine have contributed to a recent downturn in the Russian economy. Earlier this month, the World Bank downgraded Russia’s expected GDP growth in 2015 to negative 2.9 percent. A simmering rebellion in eastern Ukraine, widely associated with the Kremlin, has flared anew in the middle of winter, bringing more death and destruction.

Perhaps in a bid to test the underpinnings of Putin's support in light of these recent developments, part of the Russian opposition has announced plans for an “anti-crisis” march on March 1.

Alexey Navalny and his wife, Yulia. June 12, 2013. Photo by P.L. Bogomolov. CC 3.0.

On January 27, opposition leader Alexey Navalny published a call on his website for Russians to join him at a demonstration “under the Russian flag” on March 1. He says the necessary paperwork will be filed in advance to make the march a sanctioned event in central Moscow for up to 100,000 people.

So far, the march is being sponsored by the following opposition groups: Navalny's own Progress Party, RPR-Parnas (on whose ticket Navalny ran for Moscow mayor in 2013), the December Fifth Party, and Solidarity.

According to Navalny's announcement, the “anti-crisis” march will be held in support of a list of measures that provide “the basis for a positive agenda around which we can all unite… [and] without which Russia will not be able to get out of the crisis.” There are several listed demands:

Требования Антикризисного Марша «Весна» 1-го марта 2015 года
Действующий режим после многих лет проедания нефтяных денег завел страну в тупик и полностью обанкротился. Путин и его правительство не могут вывести страну из кризиса и должны уйти. Мы требуем принятия антикризисных мер, поддерживаемых населением и широким фронтом политических сил.

Политические требования:

  • безусловный допуск оппозиционных партий и кандидатов к участию в выборах. Обеспечение честных выборов, формирование новых составов избирательных комиссий всеми участниками выборов.
  • немедленное прекращение войны и любых агрессивных действий в отношении Украины.
  • общеизвестные крупнейшие коррупционеры от Ротенбергов и Тимченко до Сечина, Сердюкова и Якунина должны быть переданы правосудию. Требуем принятия законодательства против незаконного обогащения чиновников.
  • прекратить пропагандистскую истерию в СМИ и отменить цензуру. В качестве первого шага — предоставить оппозиции один час эфирного времени в неделю на одном из центральных каналов.
  • немедленное освобождение всех политических заключенных.
  • России нужна судебная реформа, обеспечивающая настоящую независимость судов.
  • Система управления каждым городом и деревней из Кремля показала свою несостоятельность. Стране необходима децентрализация власти.

Социально-экономические требования:

  • сокращение раздутых военно-полицейских расходов (треть федерального бюджета) в два раза и направление освободившихся средств на развитие человеческого капитала — финансирование здравоохранения и образования.
  • отмена бесполезных продуктовых “контрсанкций”, ставших причиной роста цен на продукты.
  • перераспределить средства в пользу регионов и местного самоуправления для финансирования социальной и коммунальной инфраструктуры.
  • прекращение вливание сотен миллиардов в госкомпании (Роснефть, ВЭБ, ВТБ, Газпромбанк и другие).
  • отмена решений по конфискации пенсионных накоплений граждан.

Мы призываем всех выйти на Антикризисный Марш под государственным флагом России.

Demands of the Anti-Crisis “Spring” March of March 1, 2015
The current regime, after living off oil money for many years, has led the country into a dead end and completely bankrupted it. Putin and his government are unable to extract the country from this crisis and must go. We demand the adoption of anti-crisis measures that are supported by the people and a broad front of political forces.

Political demands:

  • Unrestricted access for opposition parties and candidates to participate in elections. The holding of fair elections and the formation of new election commissions representative of all the participants in elections.
  • An immediate end to the war and any aggression against Ukraine.
  • Notoriously corrupt officials from Rotenberg and Timchenko to Sechin, Serdyukov, and Yakunin must be brought to justice. We demand the adoption of legislation forbidding officials from using their positions to illegaly enrich themselves.
  • End the propagandanstic hysteria in the media and stop censorship. As a first step, give the opposition one hour of airtime per week on one of the main TV channels.
  • The immediate release of all political prisoners.
  • Russia needs judicial reform that allows for true independence of the judiciary.
  • The system in which every town and village is managed from the Kremlin has proven to be a failure. The country needs the decentralization of power.

Social and economic demands:

  • Halving of the bloated military-police budget (one-third of the federal budget) and the allocation of this money toward the development of human capital by financing the health care and education systems.
  • Cancellation of the pointless “counter-sanctions” for food that have led to a rise in food prices.
  • Reallocate funds to the regions and local governments for use in financing social and public infrastructure.
  • An end to the infusion of hundreds of billions of rubles into state-owned companies (Rosneft, VEB, VTB, Gazprombank, and others).
  • Reversal of the decisions to seize citizens’ pension funds. 

We call for everyone to join the Anti-Crisis March under the national flag of Russia.

Opposition figures from other groups sponsoring the march have also promoted it online.

Navalny's associate Leonid Volkov created a Facebook page for the event. (It now has almost 6,000 RSVPs.) Vkontakte pages have also sprung up for Moscow (with 320 subscribers) and St. Petersburg (with 256 subscribers). A St. Petersburg Facebook event page for the march (with 215 RSVPs) now exists, as well.

Boris Nemtsov, a Solidarity leader and RPR-Parnas co-chair, wrote on Facebook that Putin's policies are to blame for the economic crisis in Russia, and presented the same list of “anti-crisis” measures, proclaiming that “our demands cannot be brushed aside” if at least 100,000-150,000 people take to the streets. Nemtsov's appeal was also posted on his Echo of Moscow blog.

RPR-Parnas co-chair and former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov posted the list of “anti-crisis” measures to his website and promoted the march on LiveJournal, writing:

Путину больше нечего предложить российскому народу, кроме удовлетворения им же разогретой жажды постсоветского реванша, империи, национальной исключительности и чванства, ненависти к цивилизованному миру.

Путинская система прогнила окончательно, «капитализм для своих» обанкротился. Путин должен уйти вместе с системой, которую он олицетворяет, и которая стала основным препятствием на пути развития страны.

Мой план ясный и простой. Это план конституционного выхода из этой ситуации.

Этот план предполагает ключевую роль в нем Путина. Он и его команда должны понять и принять мысль о том, что они должны уходить, уходить конституционно. Это означает выборы. У нас есть конституционные выборные даты. Это – декабрь 2016-го года, федеральные выборы в Государственную думу, и март 2018-го года – выборы Президента. Это и есть точки перелома, это и есть реальный путь изменения ситуации. И для нынешней власти выстроить стратегию своего ухода, нормального ухода возможно, и сделать это необходимо сейчас в этом в 2015-м году.

Putin no longer has anything to offer the Russian people other than indulgence of the thirst for post-Soviet revanchism, empire, xenophobia and national arrogance, and hatred of the civilized world.

Putin's system has rotted through, “crony capitalism” has bankrupted itself. Putin must go along with the system he represents, which has become the main obstacle to the country's development.

My plan is clear and simple. The plan is a constitutional way out of this situation.

In this plan, Putin would play a key role. He and his team must understand and accept the idea that they should leave—leave constitutionally, that is. This means elections. We have constitutionally-set election dates. December 2016 is the date for federal elections to the State Duma, and March 2018 is the date for the election of the President. This is the turning point—this is the real way to change the situation. And for the current government to draw up an exit strategy, and a normal exit is possible, planning must begin now in 2015.

 

Kasyanov also calls on the Kremlin to reverse its political crackdown, take steps to empower Russia's civil society, and tone down propagandistic hysteria on television. These measures, Kasyanov says, would prepare the country to choose a new government in the next round of national elections.

Kasyanov admits his plan won't happen by itself, but argues that mass protests can pressure the authorities to follow his plan and are therefore the “key” to realizing peaceful and constitutional change in Russia's government. Kasyanov concludes his blog post by calling for all “sensible and responsible citizens” to join him in the streets on March 1.

The huge numbers that opposition leaders hope to see at the March 1 rally have only materialized once before in Putin's Russia, during the 2011-2012 winter protests, and it is unclear how many participants organizers of the “anti-crisis” march can mobilize in the next month.

The demonstration will, however, be an interesting way to gauge public support for the clearly stated “anti-crisis” measures presented by opposition leaders. Many of the positions represent a stark contrast to current Kremlin policy, and appear formulated to target potential cracks in Putin's popularity in light of recent economic and foreign policy developments.

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