Staunton, February 17 – Anyone can see that falling incomes, the rise of the Internet, and the increase in those self-employed during the pandemic present challenges for the Putin regime if it fails to respond adequately to the coronavirus and the economic situation the disease has affected, Igor Nikolayev says.
But the fallout of the pandemic is presenting five larger challenge than Vladimir Putin and his regime appear to recognize, the Moscow economist and commentator says. And as they come grow and come together they represent “new dangers” the Kremlin should be preparing itself for (mk.ru/politics/2021/02/17/pered-kremlem-narisovalis-pyat-novykh-opasnostey.html).
As far as the first risk, handling the pandemic itself, is concerned, polls show that a majority of Russians feel that the powers that be have done not that badly. Consequently, this by itself is not yet a threat; but the pandemic continues and the challenges of overcoming it are growing rather than declining. And so it may become one, whatever the Kremlin now thinks.
Handling the second risk, overcoming the economic recession the pandemic has helped to cause, is also a far greater challenge than Putin et al think. To be sure, the Russian economy fell only 3.1 percent in 2020. But that is not the most important measure.
Far more important, disposable incomes fell by 3.5 percent; and that decline came on top of earlier declines since 2014, something that means that the money Russians have to meet their needs has declined by 10.6 percent over that period, a far deeper hole to climb out of than the Kremlin seems to think.
People are angry and they are not going to be satisfied with small gains. They need large ones and are going to demand them.
The third risk the pandemic has exacerbated is the rise of the Internet as a component of Russian life. Distance learning and work have means that the penetration of the world wide web has risen to more than 90 percent of those under 44 and to almost 100 percent among those 12 to 24.
That gives the population new sources of information that are often at odds with what the Kremlin says, and it made possible the impact of Aleksey Navalny’s film on Putin’s palace. That clip has now been seen by “more than 112 million” people, most of them Russians and many of them angered by what they saw. More of the same is likely in the future.
The fourth factor presenting political risks for the regime is the rise of freelancers in the Russian economy. Their number trebled over the last year to more than a million. They work on their own, aren’t dependent on anyone, and therefore form their own opinions rather than accept them readymade from anyone.
And finally, Nikolayev says, there is a fifth risk: the increasing psychological tension in society that the pandemic and the response to the pandemic have combined to produce. As a result of this tension, he suggests, “not a few people are ready to take part in various kinds of mass actions.”
All five of these factors will continue to grow as long as the pandemic and its consequences are around, and they will become ever more sharply defined challenges for those in power. That has already happened in other countries, including Belarus and the United States. It is very likely to occur in Russia as well.
And the impact of these factors will be seen quite soon, Nikolayev suggests, in the elections for the Duma later this year. Right now, those in the Kremlin may feel comfortable and confident. After the campaigns, they may feel much less so, the economist suggests, especially if the pandemic continues and its consequences intensify.