As Putin Turns 65, His Power Is Slowly Waning
Putin’s vulnerability would be hard to pinpoint if officials weren’t pointing to it with their clumsy actions. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who would like to run for president against Putin in next year’s election, planned a rally in St. Petersburg, the president’s hometown, for Oct. 7. City authorities withheld permission for the gathering, but since he refused to change his plans Navalny is now serving yet another 20-day detention; it’s been calculated that he has spent every fifth day of his “presidential campaign” behind bars. His campaign manager Leonid Volkov was also sentenced to 20 days on Thursday, ostensibly for tweeting calls for an illegal rally in Moscow.
Navalny held a series of successful rallies in Russian cities in September. Thousands turned out to see him in Murmansk, Yekaterinburg and Omsk. Though in every case local police low-balled attendance numbers, the authorities’ concern grew, and as the campaign planned rallies closer to Moscow and St. Petersburg, they cracked down. Last week, Navalny was detained in Moscow as he was about to leave for a rally in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth biggest city. Though he still managed a couple of trips after police let him go without charges, attendance in Orenburg was hurt by the uncertainty of whether the headliner would show up.
The Russian hinterland, where Navalny has been trying to campaign, has always been politically passive. Local authorities, school administrations and employers have never shown much tolerance for dissent. That thousands of people consistently break with the tradition of passivity and brave the consequences of coming out in support of a lone opposition voice is a new phenomenon, something not seen during the Putin era, which has already lasted for a generation. Who knows how many people would have turned out in St. Petersburg for Putin’s birthday? In a clear sign of weakness, the Kremlin has decided against finding out.
By any outward criteria, Putin could afford to let Navalny campaign freely. It’s obvious that Russia has weathered the economic consequences of the commodity price collapse and Putin’s 2014 break with the West. The oil price is holding at a level the government considers sustainable for the Russian budget. Core inflation is down to the U.K. level. Economic growth is back, and there’s especially robust progress in agriculture, the sector Putin had singled out for priority development as Russia battened down its hatches in 2014. The Saudi king has paid his first ever visit to Moscow: Russia is stronger in the Middle East than it has ever been since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, the biggest thorn in Putin’s side, has descended into its usual quagmire of political squabbling and economic incompetence. In other words, everything is going reasonably well — there are no obvious defeats or failures that could undermine Putin’s dominance in Russia.
And yet Navalny understands something that’s only visible to the naked eye at these rallies he has the courage to convene. In a blog post dictated as he began his detention, Navalny described Putin’s weakness despite his seemingly high approval rating by referring to the turnip-like root vegetable that was once a staple of the Russian peasant diet: