Thousands rallied in cities across Russia this past week to demonstrate discontent with the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. They demonstrated in about 50 cities and towns – including Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok.
Many analysts say the protests suggest widespread frustration resulting from Russia’s most serious downturn in more than a decade. Some protesters even called on Prime Minister Putin to resign.
Causes for Discontent
“Economic problems have intensified,” said Eurasian expert Paul Goble, “but there are a variety of issues people are upset about."
Goble says those issues range from concerns about environmental protection, to the government's failure to live up to its promises. More generally, he says Russians are expressing a desire for more participation in making decisions about their lives.
Specifically, says Goble, the recent protests have included numerous political demands.
“The one that gets attention, of course, is that most of these meetings called for the retirement or replacement of Vladimir Putin," says Goble. But that's just the beginning. "Some people are demanding increases in wages and pensions, and others are calling for reducing the rate of increase in charges for communal services," notes Goble.
Goble reports the number of people who took part in the recent protests was not large --anywhere from 500 to a few thouand in most locations. He says the government use of its militia against demonstrators served to keep the numbers down.
Still, Goble says “It is quite striking how much Russian activism was on display."
Russian journalist Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center insists the display of dissatisfaction was mainly confined to economic issues. “It was mostly raised tariffs, import tariffs, transport taxes, or utilities payments,” she explains.
Lipman says while people carried signs or chanted for the Prime Minister or his cabinet should resign, their demands were not strictly political.
“I would say that it is the expression of a mood of frustration, of exasperation, and growing discontent with the government,” says Lipman.
Lipman argues that the recent display of protest in Russia is not potentially destabilizing.
“The general mood I think is that of compliance with the status quo, a readiness to adjust to deteriorating conditions and living standards because of the economic crisis,” says Lipman. She says it is unlikely the protests will have any impact on changing government policies.
“What is important here," says Lipman, "is that, because of the economic crisis, the government today cannot throw money at problems the way it could before the crisis.” “The government is forced to take unpopular moves such as raising taxes and raising tariffs,” she explains.
Still, Lipman says she believes the mood of discontent will not go away. She predicts the liklihood of more rallies. What is unknown, she adds, is how the government will handle the situation.
Stability vs. Democracy
German journalist Matthias Rueb of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung agrees that serious political instability is unlikely.
“The truth of the matter is that Putin is still popular with the Russian population," says Rueb. "His party is still strong, even though they lost some influence in the last regional elections."
“It seems to me that the social fabric of Russian society is still very weak,” Rueb says. “If you can prove to people that you will provide them with stability, I think they will always trade democracy for stability.”
Rueb says he thinks Prime Minister Putin is seen as the one who made Russia strong again after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And that, he adds, is still a very important asset.