Since Vladimir Putin first became president of Russia almost 20 years ago, the unwritten rules governing the relationship between political power and the people have been clear: Citizens accept less political freedom in return for receiving greater prosperity. But five years of falling incomes mean that the Kremlin is no longer keeping its side of the deal.
Russia's leadership is increasingly worried that more people will demand change. The results of Sunday’s elections in Moscow for local government positions suggest they are right to be afraid.
With living standards falling, there are Russians taking to the streets to improve their financial prospects.
Russia's strict laws governing political protests — not encouraged, and requiring permission which is only sometimes granted (often merely to give the impression that freedom of assembly exists) — were not enough to stop demonstrators taking to the streets by the tens of thousands in the months leading up to Sunday's vote.
The rallies — which resulted in police beating demonstrators and more than 2,000 protesters being detained— were sparked by the government's refusal to allow opposition candidates to register for the elections. Though the majority of the protesters were released shortly afterwards, the heavy-handed approach seemed to only steel the protesters' determination.
Denied the chance to vote for candidates opposed to Putin, the rebels endorsed the practice of tactical voting, supporting candidates from parties other than United Russia, the party that exists mainly to support whichever policies the Kremlin is pursuing.
In an early sign of the power of the opposition, the fact that candidates did not even clearly identify as part of United Russia — choosing for the most part to present themselves as independents — suggests that their brand is, to say the least, losing its appeal with voters. Altogether, United Russia lost a third of its seats on the Moscow City Council. Elsewhere, the picture was more positive for pro-Kremlin candidates.
Naturally, the way you choose to interpret this outcome depends on your view of the situation. It may have been “victory” to the most prominent opposition activist, Alexei Navalny. To Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the results were proof that predictions of “protest voting” had not turned out to be true.
Look beyond the competing claims, though, it is clear something has shifted. When I was a correspondent in Moscow a decade ago, opposition demonstrations were pitifully small. In a city with a population of 10 million or more, the so-called “marches of the dissenters” often attracted no more than a couple thousand.
Russia then was growing richer on the back of soaring oil prices. For most Muscovites, and those who flocked to the capital to grab a share of the good times, there really wasn't much to complain about. Rising incomes secured Putin's popularity, with annual growth reaching 7 percent in the 2,000s, even as Western observers expressed concern about restrictions on political freedom.
Those concerns did not trouble the majority of ordinary Russians. Traveling around Russia as a reporter in the 1990s, I heard stories of unpaid salaries and visited factories working at a fraction of their capacity. Wearied by the chaos that had followed the collapse of communism, many voters were content to accept the stability and steadier pay that came with a former KGB officer as president.
Things are different now, as that stability has eroded. With living standards falling, there are Russians taking to the streets to improve their financial prospects. Some of the most significant before this summer's demonstrations over the elections have been against pension reforms proposed raising the retirement age.
While many of those protesters were close to retirement age, there is also a new generation of frustrated citizens who have only known Russia with Putin in charge. They want something else.
For the moment, these young activists pushing for change at the top remain in the minority. Putin's popularity may not be what it was — and a dispute over polling methodology earlier this year showed that it had become a touchy subject — but it is still higher than that enjoyed by many Western leaders.
But if the opposition activists campaigning for their candidates' right to run could harness the popular anger over the economy, too, then the Kremlin would have real cause for concern.
Ironically, it's the same thirst for economic prosperity coursing under this popular dissent that might save Putin from mass upheaval and the economic dislocation they equate it with from the past turmoil they've experienced.
Russia underwent radical change twice in the last century. The first time, in 1917, revolution followed centuries of violent injustice visited upon the people by the political elite. The second, in the 1990s, was a case of Communism collapsing as a result of an attempt to reform rather than destroy it. The instability that followed gave democracy itself a bad name in many parts of Russian society. (And that doesn't count the trauma of mass political murder and Nazi invasion in the time of Joseph Stalin.)
The wave of protest that rose in Russia this summer may now break without making much of an impact. But change of some sort will have to come soon.
If Putin’s administration is unable to offer the prospect of better times ahead, the protesters may find their ranks begin to swell further.
Putin was re-elected in 2018 for a six-year term. By the time that ends in 2024, he will, for the second time, have served the two consecutive terms permitted by the Russian constitution.
Last time he transitioned into the role of prime minister but continued to call the shots for his hand-picked replacement, Dmitry Medvedev. Even if he's able to pull off the same maneuver in 2024, though, he will be more than 70 years old and, if trends continue, further weakened by the mounting popular frustration. And failing that maneuver, either the constitution must change to permit him to continue in office, or the president must change.
No one should underestimate Putin's desire, or ability, to survive. His opponents are unbowed by the beatings the riot police have handed out and jubilant at their success — an achievement to be sure, but still a modest one. But if Putin's administration is unable to offer the prospect of better times ahead, the protesters may find their ranks begin to swell further.