Can “economic Molotov cocktail” explode Moscow?

The Moscow Kremlin
The Moscow Kremlin RIA/Scanpix

Last Tuesday’s protest against Putin’s government is not the first or the biggest act of popular resentment that the Russian law enforcement tried hard to suppress.

Political scientist Nerijus Maliukevičius says he doubts that Navalny’s protest – which attracted about 2,000 protesters and a huge police presence to contain them – could be the beginning of a mass anti-Kremlin movement, not least because the Russian opposition is quite divided and short on resources. There is one factor, however, that could make thousands of people take to the streets both in Russia’s capital and regions. Economist Gitanas Nausėda thinks economic recession that looms over Russia might turn out to be much more effective rallying call than the government’s actions against the opposition.

No unifying goal

It takes much more to have another Euromaidan in Moscow’s Manezh Square. Maliukevičius, of the International Relations and Political Science Institute at Vilnius University, thinks that, right now, Russia’s opposition is too weak and divided to even dream of Kiev-type protests.

“It would be silly to delude ourselves with ideas of a ‘Euromanezh’ in Moscow. I think these are incommensurable things – the Euromaidan and something alike in Russia… There must be a vision to provide unity for the movement. In Ukraine, we saw obvious resentment about corruption, injustice – to some extent, that exists in Russia, too. But another important point is a common vision. In Ukraine, that was the European perspective. I’d urge everyone to think what that future vision is in the case of Russia’s opposition movement. In fact, there isn’t one,” Maliukevičius tells DELFI.

As long as that is the case, he adds, any attempts to change the government will fail.

Big effort against small rally

However, the high presence of police officers and internal troops at Navalny’s protest – where over 200 people were detained, including Navalny himself – shows that the Kremlin is eager to choke any opposition movement in its infancy, without allowing even a theoretical possibility of someone challenging the current structure of power.

“That is evident,” according to Maliukevičius. “A regime like this takes security very seriously. They are afraid of scenarios like the ones we saw in Ukraine, Libya and elsewhere.”

Moreover, the Kremlin has many other tricks up its sleeve it has not deployed yet, he adds, like sending loyal men in civilian clothes to infiltrate and discredit protesters. In Ukraine, such saboteurs have come to be known as “titushkas”.

Economic Molotov cocktail

Gitanas Nausėda, adviser to the president of SEB Bank, agrees that the Russian opposition is very divided. Moreover, state-run propaganda effectively keeps the population in the Kremlin’s control.

“Russia does not have any vaccine against the Maidan repeating itself there. I think, however, it is premature to talk about that today, because there are far too many people duped by the mass media who still fail to make the connection between what Russia did in Ukraine, Crimea, and the current economic hardship. They probably believe that the economic hardship is a result of a global conspiracy against them, that the US is pursuing sneaky policy. But as they continue to experience diminishing income, lower purchasing power, the continued devaluation of the rouble, I think this will make voices of protest heard better,” Nausėda tells DELFI.

The economist says that 2015 will be a tough year for Russians economically and their resentment might find expression in the streets.

“I think the economic hardship will do the hard work. I do not believe we’ll have to wait long. Over the coming 4-5 months we might see expressions of dissatisfaction. This does not necessarily mean mass protests. But we might see protests, this time not against persecution of opposition figures, but about economy, demanding the government to take action,” Nausėda speculates.

It is likely, he adds, that the Russian opposition might also soon refocus its agenda on economic issues which will help swell its ranks. “This [economic situation] is likely to be the key source of resentment in the coming months. Even if they [the opposition] are not consciously pursuing the issue, they will see what are the concerns of Russian people and will inevitably focus on them,” Nausėda says.

According to the economist, Russia has very tough economic times ahead, therefore the government might be making preparations to tackle resentment among the population.

“Protest rallies might occur spontaneously and on a massive scale. Possibly even in the coming months, if oil prices remain in the current lows and the rouble will be weak. Imports will get more expensive, prices will rise, economy will contract. It’s an economic Molotov cocktail that can really blow up the political situation in Russia,” Nausėda says.

Meanwhile Maliukevičius is more cautious, saying that the level of indoctrination in the Russian society is so high that the Kremlin can direct the people’s resentment at the “rotten West” or any other enemy it chooses.

“Russia is ready bear discomfort that is incomprehensible to the West. The West has a different standard of comfort than Russia. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the fluctuations of the rouble or other things will turn things upside down. They can, however, shore up the ranks of the dissatisfied,” according to the Lithuanian political scientist.

Plan B – heads will roll

Both Maliukevičius and Nausėda agree that, should popular indignation about the economic situation in Russia grow, Putin might resort to scapegoating someone in his own entourage. Though it is highly improbable, even someone like Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev might be sacrificed in case things go really bad.

“There is always the option of firing the head of the government that the Russian president might use, should the situation become complicated,” Maliukevičius speculates.

Another extreme option, he says, would be letting force structures off the leash, introducing something approaching a “military rule”.

Nausėda agrees that the Kremlin might soon find itself in need of finding a scapegoat. “Perhaps the prime minister might be sacrificed, maybe the central bank chairwoman. Eventually, however, the Kremlin master himself might become the object of protests and criticism, it is something I would not rule out,” the SEB Bank economist says.

Even under conditions of meticulously-run propaganda, prolonged economic hardship will inevitably incite resentment among ordinary Russians. “Even if they are told that their problems are the Americans’ fault or someone else’s, they will still be dissatisfied with their empty stomachs and pockets – and the usual explanations will no longer do,” according to Nausėda.

He speculates that, should the Kremlin feel growing dissatisfaction of the public, it will have two options open: further aggression abroad or “normalization” of relations with the West, an option that Putin is not very fond of.

“This would put Putin into a very precarious position. He would have to find a way to admit that the previous year, escalation of the conflict, have been unsuccessful and unproductive, that Russia suffered more than the West and, possibly, even more than Ukraine. Admitting it will be terribly hard. It is unclear if at all politically possible – the admission would mean that his entire policy up to this point has been a fiasco. Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is a continued search for new hotspots, even attempts to fan conflict. This, obviously, is bad news for the entire region,” Nausėda summarizes.

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