On October 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 65. As of this year, this is the maximum retirement age for Russian civil servants, which can only be raised in special cases. Though Putin, as an elected official, is not subject to this law and has indicated that it’s too early for him to retire, he reaches this milestone in a surprisingly vulnerable position.
Putin’s vulnerability would be hard to pinpoint if officials weren’t pointing to it with their clumsy actions. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who would like to run for president against Putin in next year’s election, planned a rally in St Petersburg, the president’s hometown. City authorities withheld permission for the gathering, but since he refused to change his plans Navalny is now serving yet another 20-day detention; it’s been calculated that he has spent every fifth day of his “presidential campaign” behind bars. His campaign manager Leonid Volkov was also sentenced to 20 days, ostensibly for tweeting calls for an illegal rally in Moscow.
Navalny held a series of successful rallies in Russian cities in September. Thousands turned out to see him in Murmansk, Yekaterinburg and Omsk. Though in every case local police low-balled attendance numbers, the authorities’ concern grew, and as the campaign planned rallies closer to Moscow and St Petersburg, they cracked down. Last week, Navalny was detained in Moscow as he was about to leave for a rally in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth biggest city. Though he still managed a couple of trips after police let him go without charges, attendance in Orenburg was hurt by the uncertainty of whether the headliner would show up.
The Russian hinterland, where Navalny has been trying to campaign, has always been politically passive. Local authorities, school administrations and employers have never shown much tolerance for dissent. That thousands of people consistently break with the tradition of passivity and brave the consequences of coming out in support of a lone opposition voice is a new phenomenon, something not seen during the Putin era, which has already lasted for a generation. Who knows how many people would have turned out in St. Petersburg for Putin’s birthday? In a clear sign of weakness, the Kremlin has decided against finding out.
By any outward criteria, Putin could afford to let Navalny campaign freely. It’s obvious that Russia has weathered the economic consequences of the commodity price collapse and Putin’s 2014 break with the West. The oil price is holding at a level the government considers sustainable for the Russian budget. Core inflation is down to the UK level. Economic growth is back, and there’s especially robust progress in agriculture, the sector Putin had singled out for priority development as Russia battened down its hatches in 2014. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz has paid his first ever visit to Moscow: Russia is stronger in the Middle East than it has ever been since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, the biggest thorn in Putin’s side, has descended into its usual quagmire of political squabbling and economic incompetence. In other words, everything is going reasonably well — there are no obvious defeats or failures that could undermine Putin’s dominance in Russia.
And yet Navalny understands something that’s only visible to the naked eye at these rallies he has the courage to convene. In a blog post dictated as he began his detention, Navalny described Putin’s weakness despite his seemingly high approval rating by referring to the turnip-like root vegetable that was once a staple of the Russian peasant diet:
It’s like asking a person who has been fed nothing but rutabaga all his life, how edible he finds rutabaga. The approval rating will be quite high. Quite likely, many well-known athletes and singers will come out in support of rutabaga and will be willing to become ambassadors for it. Why not? Rutabaga is our daily bread, it gives us stability. This is a fitting analogy: I’m 41, and the last time I saw anyone but Putin elected was when I was 20.
Navalny senses the fatigue that is also reflected in low local election turnouts. In a democratic country, that fatigue could turn into a marked drop in electoral support, the way it did for the ruling centrist parties in Germany last month. In Russia, it’s increasing the Kremlin’s reliance on repression. It’s increasingly hard to invent distractions for the restive voter. In one such ploy, the Kremlin apparently encouraged Ksenia Sobchak, a TV personality with some opposition credibility built up during the protests against the rigged 2011 parliamentary election, to run for president. She has even attacked Navalny for trying to monopolise the anti-Putin alternative. A Sobchak bid would have been such a transparent move, though, that it doesn’t appear to be getting off the ground. She insists she hasn’t made a decision yet, but she’s reportedly having trouble finding people to run the campaign.
Putin himself hasn’t announced his candidacy yet. He’s overwhelmingly likely to do so next month, and there’s little doubt that he’ll be declared winner of the March election, but his aides appear to be out of creative ideas for a non-boring re-enthronement. If it looks more like a retirement party than a vigorous campaign, and if the turnout is low, as it’s likely to be, Putin’s next six-year presidential term won’t be boring at all.
By law, Putin can’t run again in 2024, and an anodyne placeholder like former president Dmitri Medvedev won’t do the trick this time. Putin’s successor will have to break the tangible boredom — but there’s no one in the ruling party who might be able to do it. So, for the next six years, the search will be on for an inspiring personality. That, and the need to maintain economic credibility, will be hard to square with the increased repression necessary to counteract Russians’ growing irritation with their “rutabaga diet.”
Perhaps Navalny is over-optimistic about that fatigue. Russia is not a volatile country; it’s good at hibernating. But the country is beginning to stir, barely visibly so far, in its sleep. The current stasis won’t be easy to extend into Putin’s next term.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.