MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin’s approval rating is heading south. Russia’s economy is struggling with Western sanctions and domestic mismanagement. Protests have flared up in the provinces.
Critics, meanwhile, feel just a little less intimidated by Putin’s power after effectively leading the country for nearly two decades.
“People are fed up of staying silent,” ran a headline last week in one of Putin’s usually reliable allies, the Kremlin-friendly tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda.
On Thursday, the Russian president will take another stab at shaping his country’s narrative and his own image at his annual television call-in show — a highly scripted exchange between Putin and the masses. (Even though the callers are prescreened.)
This year’s version comes at a time when the Kremlin is becoming more sensitive to shifting public opinions as challenging authority increasingly becomes part of the Russian political landscape.
The hours-long event, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” is billed as a chance for ordinary Russians — across the country’s 11 time zones — to get some direct answers from Putin.
The reality is that the show is something of a political barometer, widely seen as the main indicator of the Kremlin’s current mood.
During last year’s phone-in marathon, a smiling Putin weighed in on Europe’s tariffs dispute with the United States, enjoying something of an “I told you so” moment.
But this year will most likely see Putin trying to deflect or assuage growing anger across the country, from disputes involving where to put trash to the construction of a church in a much-loved park in a central Russian city.
Feeding the discontentment is a sputtering economy. Living standards, in terms of real income versus costs, are expected to decrease for a sixth year in a row, economists at Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics have predicted.
If recent weeks are anything to go by, Putin appears to be on somewhat of a clemency campaign.
Last week, his government caved to public pressure when he waded into the case of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who had been jailed and beaten on trumped-up drug charges. Golunov was released amid growing public outcry.
This week saw the leniency continue. On Monday, another journalist who had exposed corruption by officials, Igor Rudnikov, was released after more than a year behind bars on extortion charges. On Tuesday, Leonid Volkov, a top aide to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was released from a Moscow jail , cutting his stay behind bars in half.
Last month, Putin intervened in a dispute in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, where a surge in public outrage at the building of a cathedral in a park sparked mass protests. Putin halted the project.
As Russians get poorer, anger at official corruption has been steadily growing, driving down Putin’s popularity ratings. According to independent pollster Levada, 66 percent of Russians approved of the leader in May — still strong by most standards, but close to the lowest for Putin in six years.
The outpouring of support for the journalist Golunov, even from staunchly pro-Kremlin pundits, state-run media and celebrities known for touting the official line was unprecedented. It led some commentators to make comparisons to the Soviet “thaw” 60 years ago, which saw a softening of political and artistic repressions after the death of dictator Joseph Stalin.
The desire for protest suddenly felt trendy, even reaching the very heart of the Kremlin.
Elizaveta Peskova, the 21-year-old daughter of Putin’s spokesman, posted a photo of herself to her Instagram account holding up one of the three Russian newspapers that had identical front-page covers in support of Golunov — which was itself a rare act of solidarity in the mainstream media.
But Russian authorities had the last word. At a protest organized in support of Golunov soon after — which did not receive the green light from authorities — the response from the police was brutal and heavy-handed. Hundreds were arrested.
“Golunov’s release was a tactical concession, an act of ‘royal mercy,’ and is by no means a sign of the Kremlin retreating,” said Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based analyst and editor of the Point & Counterpoint journal at George Washington University. “The Kremlin is, in fact, more flexible than is commonly assumed. It may concede if it deems it expedient for the sake of stability.”