Staunton, May 8 – Lev Gudkov, the head of the independent Levada Center polling agency, says that by the middle of the summer Russians will begin mass protests because of declines in their standard of living brought on by the government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
He tells Kazan’s Business Gazeta that Russian patience, already wearing thin, will last only two more months. After that time, “Russians will protest against the quarantine, demand financial support from the government, and seek real assurances that the economy as a whole will begin to recover (business-gazeta.ru/article/467786).
Because there are no all-Russian protest leaders or an Internet network functioning in its place, Gudkov continues, tensions will grow but “will not find an outcome” until there is something that triggers an explosion with the result being massive protests not in one place or another but throughout the country, including in Moscow.
Seventy percent of Russians were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic restrictions. Now, they have no money to support themselves. As a result, some will go out into the streets out of desperation or engage in “other excesses connected with forced self-isolation, although it is still early to speak of that.”
This matters for the regime both because Putin’s rating is falling and because Russians have gotten used to the idea of protesting once again, the sociologist says. Forty-eight percent of Russians consider Putin’s response to the pandemic “inadequate.” Ordering people to stay at home but not providing them with assistance is just wrong in their view.
Moreover, surveys show that “more than half” of Russians don’t trust government statements about the pandemic and are more inclined to believe doctors they know who may be telling them something very different than the Kremlin is. Such attitudes have led to the collapse of trust in Putin to the lowest level of his presidency.
And that attitude is both reflected in and exacerbated by increases in protests and arrests of protesters over the last year. 2019, Gudkov says, “broke the record” of 2011-2012 in terms of arrests and detentions and the fines the government imposed on protesters rose by 900 percent over 2012. Nonetheless, Russians continued to protest.
The Putin regime’s effort to defuse anger by going after corrupt figures is no longer working as it did, the sociologist continues. In the past, Russians viewed these cases as a form of justice. Now, they increasingly see them for what they are: an attempt to distract the people from corruption at the very top.
This combination of factors – rising popular anger, falling popular trust in Putin and the regime, and an increasing willingness of the authorities to use force – thus promises a long hot summer, one in which many of the assumptions on which the Putin system has rested will be put to the most severe test.