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'Life is getting harder for Putin': Experts say Moscow protests show president's power could be waning

Key Points
  • Moscow has seen weekly protests for more than a month after the authorities barred opposition candidates from running in an election for the Moscow city council in September.
  • The authorities have been heavily criticized for clamping down on demonstrations.
  • More than 1000 protesters were arrested during one demonstration in July.
Policemen detain lone protesters in Arbat Street. Unauthorized rallies in support of independent candidates disqualified from the Moscow City Duma election have been staged in Moscow since July 27 as well as against its participants' arrests since August 3.
Gavriil Grigorov | TASS | Getty Images

Protests seen in Moscow in recent weeks show that President Vladimir Putin's grip on power in Russia might not be as strong as it once was, according to experts.

The authorities barred scores of opposition candidates from running in an election for the Moscow city council in September. The restrictions have led to thousands of protesters taking to the streets of the capital in recent months.

Officials have been heavily criticized for clamping down on demonstrations. A rally in July led to the arrest of more than 1,000 protesters and police were called out for their heavy-handedness. Experts say the protests are a sign of waning patience with Putin and the lack of political plurality in Russia.

"Life is getting harder and harder for Vladimir Putin after 20 years in power, where living standards are now dropping quite considerably as a result of the oil price not increasing, as it was for the first 15 years of his reign. And of course sanctions and corruption (are) hitting more," James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told CNBC last week.

Drop in oil prices

Living standards and costs have been affected in recent years by Russia's wider economic crisis following a steep drop in oil prices (Russia's natural resources like oil and gas are reportedly valued at 60% of its GDP) and ongoing sanctions imposed on the country following the Crimea annexation and its support for an uprising in eastern Ukraine.

The ruble has plummeted (the dollar is up some 90% against the currency since early 2014) sending inflation soaring which the central bank is still working to counter. The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for Russian 2019 GDP (gross domestic product) growth to 1.2% in July, saying its downgrade reflected a weak first-quarter estimate, lower oil prices and the impact of the higher tax rate on private consumption.

VIDEO3:2703:27
A stagnating Russian economy is hurting Putin, expert says

Nixey noted that while the latest weekend protests in August were sparked by the disenfranchisement of opposition party candidates, the wider "macro" picture was of growing disaffection with Putin's rule.

"If you want the wider macro view then it's been 20 years since Vladimir Putin was installed as prime minister and subsequently president of Russia, and that's a long time whether you're an autocrat or a democrat — obviously he's the former," Nixey said.

"It means that life gets increasingly difficult if you're not in a completely authoritarian system, and Russia is a semi-authoritarian system where the lid is slightly off, and it allows for some protests, and these can snowball."

Pension reforms

Putin is certainly wary of the situation snowballing. Meeting his French counterpart in southern France last week, who criticized the clampdown on protests, Putin rebuked President Emmanuel Macron, saying he did not want the same "yellow vest" protests that have plagued France for many months.

Putin can still cite approval ratings collated by the independent pollster, the Levada Center, as evidence that he is still, generally, a popular leader, and more so than other Western leaders could boast. In July, Putin's approval rating stood at 68%, data showed, although his rating has been gradually declining since it soared in 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Nixey thought Putin's approval ratings were far lower than those published, however, believing it to be nearer the 40-50% level. The Russia leader's popularity took a hit last year when the government introduced unpopular pension reforms and a rise in a consumption tax earlier this year.

Putin's approval ratings

There are few political opponents that can match Putin's leadership credentials, experience or profile, however. Another poll by the Levada Center in July showed that a majority of Russians don't know who else they could rely on in terms of leadership apart from Putin.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, told CNBC that disapproval of Putin is increasing, nonetheless.

"In Russia, we have growing discontent among ordinary Russians and this is seen through the falling approval ratings of Putin. The decline began in June 2018 so it's a general process," she said. Stanovaya noted that the Moscow protests had started as a local movement but had become nationalized due to the perceived harshness of the authorities' response.

"In the beginning it was (a) Moscow conflict but the Kremlin's support of harsh tactics by the authorities meant that it became a federal case and a federal agenda," she told CNBC last week. She believed Putin had underestimated the situation: "He thinks it will calm down but i don't think so. I think he will have to face some longer-term risks from parts of Russian society" unhappy with his rule, she noted.

Analysts have highlighted that the demonstrations have now turned into solidarity protests at those that have been arrested and detained. There is also a belief the protests could gather momentum and morph from having a more localized character to a more national one.

"How the authorities have handled the issue, the initial protest, has led to another issue," Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC. "Basically now they've allowed one of the opposition candidates to run (in the election) but it hasn't got rid of the problem."

"But i think a real red flag for the Kremlin would be if these protests in Moscow spread to other more 'second-tier' cities in Russia. Moscow is a world of its own and people outside the city might not particularly care about what's going on there, but the risk is if various grievances in other areas of the country turn into a wider anti-government movement," she said.