And yet, as you can see in many a schoolyard, the preening bully is almost always trying to hide an underlying weakness. He doesn’t get his power through respect or love or hard work — he gets it through fear. When the other kids stop being afraid, the bully immediately knows that his time is running out. He has two options: to change his ways — or to increase the scale of the violence he’s willing to bring to bear. The catch with the second option, of course, is that it doesn’t address the fundamental problem.
Which brings me to Russia, where prosecutors have just announced plans to withdraw parental rights from a couple who dared to bring their 1-year-old child to a political protest on July 27. That was also the day that Moscow police arrested 17-year-old Olga Misik, who had committed the unthinkable crime of — wait for it — reading aloud from the Russian constitution. A few days later, during another protest, the cops swooped down and detained a pro-government politician who was actually giving an interview defending a harsh government crackdown on demonstrators — apparently assuming that anyone talking to the media must be a member of the opposition.
These three stories tell you all you need to know. The current Russian leadership might look strong. But it’s actually running scared.
And it’s easy to understand why. On this day, which marks the 20th anniversary of the day Vladimir Putin first came to power as Russia’s acting prime minister, his country is struggling. The latest wave of unrest in Moscow, which was triggered by the city government’s refusal to register opposition candidates for an upcoming election, is merely the latest episode in a longer story. Recent years have seen a steady rise in public discontent, though the causes don’t always involve politics. In just the past few months, citizens have protested a waste dump, the construction of a cathedral and the redrawing of an administrative border. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Andrey Pertsev recently noted, “Russians, once cowed by the potential consequences of taking to the streets, are increasingly willing to protest over nonpolitical and local issues.”
Pertsev is right to note that there is a new fearlessness about these recent demonstrations that makes them remarkable. The extraordinarily brutal suppression of the Moscow protests on July 27 didn’t prevent more demonstrators from taking to the streets in the days that followed.
A government supporter recently took me to task for focusing attention on Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who has put the fight against corruption at the top of his agenda. “Navalny rarely gets more than a few percent in the polls,” I was told. If that’s the case, I answered, why does the government feel compelled to arrest him again and again? If he weren’t gaining any traction, why should the authorities launch yet another politically motivated probe into his finances, as they did this week? What are the authorities so afraid of?
Navalny clearly has Putin unnerved. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
The Financial Times notes that the real incomes of Russians have been steadily falling over the past six years, and are now 10 percent lower than they were in 2013 — the year before Putin annexed Crimea and went to war with Ukraine. Even if the economy grows a bit this year, many of Putin’s compatriots, who live in one of the most unequal societies in the world, won’t feel much benefit. Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin warned last month that the country could be heading for a recession if things don’t change.
But “change” is precisely the problem. In two decades, the Putin regime has failed to deliver on urgently needed reforms. It has failed to diversify the economy beyond its natural-resource base. Corruption remains rampant. Business people and citizens can’t rely on courts to deliver impartial justice. Politically well-connected oligarchs stifle competition and innovation.
Meanwhile, Putin’s war in Ukraine grinds on, while the nationalist sugar high from his Crimea land-grab has long since faded. Moscow’s military adventure in Syria, often cited by Western pundits as evidence of a new global assertiveness, is deeply unpopular: One recent poll found that 55 percent of Russians want to see it ended. And even though Putin’s approval rating has ticked up slightly in recent weeks, it’s still hovering around historic lows — in a country where the government maintains tight control of what people get to see and hear.
So we should expect increasingly brutal crackdowns on even the least significant protests. The big question: How much longer are Russians willing to be bullied?