Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
Establishing stability within the Russian Federation, strengthening the government’s power vertical and restoring influence over Russian regions are considered to be the most important achievements of Vladimir Putin’s lengthy rule. This definitely rings true if we compare the current situation with the 1990s when Moscow’s influence was highly limited while the stability of the state had collapsed altogether. The problem of Chechnya at that time, which came very close to achieving independence, is remembered very well by everyone to date. However, it must also be pointed out that the problem of Chechnya, even though it was the biggest one, was certainly not the only one. In the 1990s, a large part of the subjects of the Federation was distanced from Moscow and was exercising independent policies.
To illustrate the extent of the problems with regard to managing the regions at the time, we can recall one example. The Governor of the Primorsky Krai, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, was allowing himself to publicly oppose a border agreement between Russia and China. In order to demonstrate his power, he positioned his paramilitary forces along the border with China. This is not to mention the fact that he managed the funds from the federal budget according to his own views and directly blamed President Yeltsin for the economic problems in his Krai.
Today, of course, the situation is vastly different. Everyone recognizes Putin’s power and no state official will dare to act against him. However, the main question remains – how sturdy is the stability created under Putin’s rule and will it prevail after he leaves office? This question is quite actively circulating in the political elite and expert circles in Russia, yet nobody seems to have a definitive answer.
In general, there are certain indicators that from time to time cause us to think that stability in Russia is illusory with the actual situation being very vulnerable. As one such indicators, we should consider the protests that started in Khabarovsk Krai in the Russian Far East on July 11.
Let us attempt to explain step-by-step why this protest is interesting and what impression it gives vis-à-vis Russia’s stability.
The protest was caused by the arrest of the Governor of Khabarovsk Krai, S. Furgal, who was charged with organizing the murders of several businessmen back in the 2000s. The fact that the crimes were committed a long time ago caused well-grounded suspicions that the criminal case was “artificially built.” This suspicion is further reinforced by the fact that Furgal is one of the rare exceptions who managed to defeat the candidate of the ruling United Russia party in the 2018 regional elections. He is a member of the opposition Liberal-Democratic Party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky; however, everyone in Russia has known for a long time already that Zhirinosvky is in bed with the government. That said, it seems that Moscow has nonetheless decided to remove Furgal as a precaution in order to give Khabarovsk Krai to a more reliable person.
The issue is that Moscow considers this region to be quite problematic. To know why that is the case, we must look at the most recent election dynamics. For example, only 36% of voters participated in the first round of elections for Khabarovsk Krai’s governor in 2018 which is a very small number. It must also be noted that this is no exception. In recent years, a trend has been observed in the Russian Federation as a whole when increasingly small numbers of people are participating in parliamentary and local elections. The governing elite of Russia considers that those voters who stay home are, at the very least, disappointed and dissatisfied with the government. The government, therefore, tries to boost the number of those who vote by employing PR technologies. Their fears are further confirmed by the second round of elections in Khabarovsk Krai where Furgal (69%) gained a solid victory against his rival from the ruling United Russia party (27%).
After Furgal’s victory in the gubernatorial race, the 2019 local legislative structure election was won by the Liberal-Democratic Party, which secured 30 mandates, with the Communist Party getting three and ruling United Russia – only two.
The problematic nature of Khabarovsk Krai was further confirmed by the recent constitutional referendum. Only 44% of voters in Khabarovsk Krai participated in it which is second to last among the 85 subjects of the Federation. Of those who showed up, only 62% supported the changes which is sixth from the bottom among the 85 subjects of the Federation.
What is more important, the protests in Khabarovsk in connection with Furgal’s arrest were of an unprecedented scale. According to various sources, the number of participants there reached 35,000 when only 600,000 people in total live in Khabarovsk. As a point of comparison, about 11 million people live in Moscow and only 50,000 of them participated in protests in 2019 which was seen as the biggest protest in the past seven years at the time. What is also important to note is that the Khabarovsk protests were clearly anti-Putin in their nature as messages sharply critical of him as well as those against him remaining in power could often be heard there.
There is one more important thing which probably causes the highest level of concern in Moscow. The protests in Khabarovsk were organized spontaneously, yet very quickly, for which they used social media. Here it is important to note that the ratings of the Russian federal government as well as its management of public opinion is largely based on the control of the information space. The importance of this is well understood by Putin and the Russian political elite. That said, lately the experts in pro-government circles often point to the fact that the era of traditional media, which is an effective mechanism of societal control in Russia, is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Therefore, the problem of the generation that is “glued” to smartphones is becoming more and more pressing as their main source of information is the internet and social media. Therefore, the Kremlin does not at the moment have efficient mechanisms for managing and controlling this generation of people.
When we speak about stability in the Russian Federation, we must also take one important factor into account – the economic difficulties that Moscow encountered as a result of Western sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and the armed intervention in Eastern Ukraine. The situation was further aggravated by the reduction of oil prices in this period which is very important for Russia as about 60% of its state budget is generated through the exports of natural resources. Today is an even more difficult situation in this regard as the pandemic has caused oil prices to reduce further, also creating many other types of economic problems. Such economic problems naturally aggravate the social situation in Russia which is a sort of a test for the stability created in the Putin era.