Tuesday, October 7, was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 68th birthday, and, in keeping with his Soviet-style personality cult, it would normally have been an occasion for Putin to bask in public fanfare. But this year was different. Putin is holed up at his residence outside Moscow, where he has been since early April, avoiding infection from the coronavirus that is again rampant in Russia, while unrest surges in three countries of the former Soviet Union, and France and Germany are pushing for new EU economic sanctions against Russia because of the poisoning of Russian democrat Alexei Navalny.
In honor of Putin’s birthday, the Russian news agency Tass released the final episode of a series entitled 20 Questions with Vladimir Putin, a special interview project to commemorate Putin’s twenty years as leader. In this episode Putin does not discuss pressing economic issues or international affairs, but rather his hobbies, family and other personal matters. Significantly, while Putin mentions that he enjoys his “sweet” grandchildren, he also confesses to his interviewer that “when you occupy this position, sometimes it feels like you cease to be a human being and become nothing more than a mere function.”
No wonder Putin has begun feeling like an automaton. Bad things have been happening to Putin in battalions lately. On July 9, just as the number of coronavirus cases in Russia had begun to decline and the virus seemed under control, mass protests erupted in the Siberian district of Khabarovsk over the arrest on unsubstantiated murder charges of the popular governor, Sergei Furgal.
The unrest in Khabarovsk, a cause for deep concern in the Kremlin, was soon overshadowed by events in Belarus, where the largest political rally in over a decade took place in Minsk on July 30 in support of the opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Opposition protests, accompanied by mass arrests, plunged Belarus into turmoil after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, reported a landslide victory in the August 9 presidential elections. Despite a severe crackdown, the protests have continued. On October 4, 100,000 people marched in Minsk demanding Lukashenko’s resignation.
The events in Belarus, a neighboring country that serves as Russia’s strategic buffer to NATO states, pose a huge dilemma for Putin. The overthrow of an authoritarian leader like Lukashenko by a grassroots democratic movement would set a dangerous example that Russians might at some point follow. But if the Kremlin sends paramilitary forces into Belarus to support Lukashenko, as Putin suggested last month might be done, such a move could result in more Western sanctions against Russia, which would further damage Russia’s faltering economy.
Adding to the Kremlin’s troubles, a violent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted on September 27 over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies in Azerbaijan, but is controlled by ethnic Christian Armenians who are backed by the Armenian government. Russia would like to put an end to what is the deadliest fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 25 years, but both countries are ignoring appeals for a cease-fire.
Just days later, a political uprising engulfed the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, yet another former Soviet republic. As with Belarus, claims of rigged elections ignited the turmoil. On October 5, following parliamentary elections the previous day, masses of demonstrators took to the streets, eventually seizing government buildings and the office of the president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who is now in hiding. Kyrgyzstan has seen years of political conflict, characterized more by fighting among elite rival groups and clans than by struggles for democracy, so the situation there is not comparable to that in Belarus, which has much greater implications for the Kremlin. Nonetheless, the Kremlin cannot ignore the chaos in a country that depends economically on Russia and houses a Russian military base.
The spread of COVID-19, which has caused significant unemployment and economic disruption in Kyrgyzstan, contributed to the political discontent there, as it has elsewhere, including in Russia. (From January to September 2020, the number of bankruptcies of Russian citizens and individual entrepreneurs increased by 64.9 percent, to 77,000.) According to Russia’s Levada-Center, a polling organization, Putin’s approval ratings dropped to an all-time low of 59 percent when the coronavirus reached pandemic levels in April and May of this year, only to climb back up as the rates of infection declined. So the recent steep rise in Russia’s coronavirus cases, with daily totals approaching the record high of 11,656 on May 11, is further cause for disquiet among Putin and his government.
But of all the problems Putin faces as he continues to isolate, communicating with his political and military advisors mainly through video conferences, the most troubling may be that of Navalny, who the Kremlin failed to eliminate as planned on August 20. As with GRU defector Sergei Skripal, Russia’s security services botched their job, and Navalny not only survived, but is speaking out publicly about the poisoning, which he attributes to Putin directly. And he is urging tougher western sanctions on members of Putin’s inner circle. In a recent interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper, cited by Radio Liberty, Navalny stressed that “the most important thing is to impose entry bans against those who profit from the regime and freeze their assets… They embezzle money, steal billions, and at the weekend they fly to Berlin or London, buy expensive apartments, and sit in cafes.”
Although the fearless Navalny plans to return to Russia once he has recovered from the poisoning to continue his opposition to the Putin regime, he does not pose an immediate political threat to Putin. According to an in-depth analysis last week by Levada-Center Deputy Director Denis Volkov, only one third of the 77 percent of Russians who had heard about Navalny’s poisoning believe that it was a deliberate attack. Most think that it was a provocation by western security services or something Navalny did to himself. This is because of long-formed views of older Russians, who get their news on Russian state-controlled television, from which Navalny and other opposition politicians are banned. Navalny’s audience comes from younger Russians who regularly consult the internet. Volkov points out that: “Russian television and the Internet do not just differ in interpretation, but present two different pictures of what is happening.”
But, Volkov says, this situation is changing: “For his supporters, Navalny is important, first of all, because he ‘speaks the truth,’ ‘gives an alternative point of view,’ ‘fights against the authorities’ and ‘is not afraid.’ Although Navalny gained his fame as the author of high-profile anti-corruption investigations, in his current image this characterization fades into the background. In the context of declining public support for top officials, his image as an alternative to the current government and its policies is becoming increasingly important. And this makes the Kremlin nervous.”
Volkov goes on to point out that Navalny’s positive image is a result of his painstaking work on the internet, his effective team of like-minded colleagues and his network of regional headquarters: “For some of his supporters from the regions, Navalny was the first politician from Moscow whom they saw in person. All this allowed him to slowly but surely build up his authority.” Although current Russian political views are dominated by the older generation, which is afraid of change and dislikes Navalny, it is only a matter of time, Volkov says, before the younger generation becomes more politically active.
It is worth noting that Putin’s birthday also marks the fourteenth anniversary of the as yet unsolved murder of Russian journalist and fierce Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006. Referring to this “coincidence”—some say the killing was a birthday gift to Putin—St. Petersburg Parliamentary deputy Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the liberal Yabloko party, had this to say:
“Today, sitting in his bunker, Putin will receive flattering congratulations from the stalwarts of his ‘vertical’ power base, who assure him that ‘without Putin there will be no Russia.’ But the event that happened on a previous October 7 [Politkovskaya’s murder] will be remembered for a very long time. As well as Anna Politkovskaya herself. And today’s event [Putin’s birthday] will be forgotten as soon as the birthday boy loses power.”