Thousands of demonstrators are expected to brave Moscow's sub-freezing temperatures on Saturday to protest against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as he seeks a third term as president.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators are expected to weather sub-freezing temperatures Saturday to march in Russia’s capital as part of a growing protest movement against the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seeking a third term in the next presidential election after being ineligible to run for a third consecutive term in 2008.
Saturday’s demonstration, which officially calls for free and fair elections, falls exactly two months after the results of the last parliamentary elections sparked mass protests over widespread allegations of electoral fraud and one month ahead of the March 4 presidential ballot.
Over the years, Putin has worked hard to uphold his image as Mr. Tough Guy both in and outside the political arena. Whether in the face of adversity or during a carefully staged photo-op, the Harley-riding, wilderness-loving, ex-KGB officer has presented himself as an uncompromising leader. Yet as he gears up for the elections, Putin has shown a streak of uncharacteristic humility.
Breaking with the past, Putin’s government has softened its stance on mass demonstrations in the wake of the country’s disputed parliamentary elections, granting authorisation for opposition leaders to stage some of the largest protests the country has seen in decades.
“Up until now, all opposition protests were crushed immediately”, Alexander Kolyandr, a correspondent for Dow Jones news wires in Moscow, told FRANCE 24. “Moscow hasn’t seen mass protests for years. The last rally to gather hundreds of thousands of protesters was in 1991”.
In addition, the Kremlin has promised a number of electoral reforms, including easing rules on party registration.
“Putin understands that the opposition poses a much more serious problem than he realised,” Oleg Kobtzeff, an assistant professor in political science and history at the American University in Paris said in an interview with FRANCE 24. “There’s the issue of image abroad… and he’s realising that one of his biggest image problems is that he’s seen as someone who has dictatorial tendencies”.
Despite recent demonstrations, Putin still enjoys a significant level of support in Russia.
On January 28, thousands of people from across the Ural mountain region shuttled to the city of Yekaterinburg for a pro-Putin rally. In a recent poll, the state-owned All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion placed Putin’s popularity rating at 48 percent.
“There is a lot of popular support behind him – it is declining, yes, but his [support] has always been his main asset”, Kobtzeff said.
“What people in the West don’t understand is the feeling of absolute chaos during the Yeltsin years. People feared, and they had good reason to then, that Russia was becoming a free-for-all, a failed state. It was like the Wild West during the 1900s, with robber barons everywhere”, Kobtzeff explained. “Life actually got better under Putin in the 90s”.
Fear of instability
Support for Putin, however, may be less based on the candidate's appeal than on a lack of confidence in his opposition. A survey by the independent Levada Centre found that 14 percent of respondents said they felt that Putin was the best candidate to tackle Russia’s problems, while 78 percent said they were certain Putin would be elected come March’s presidential vote.
According to Kobtzeff, this disparity could be due to the fact that many Russians have a deep-seated fear of instability. Putin played off these sentiments in comments made earlier this week while acknowledging that he could face a run-off vote.
“A run-off would unavoidably be linked to the continuation of a struggle and the destabilisation of the political situation”, Putin said.
To many, Russia’s opposition movement - which is largely splintered between the far right, the far left and social democrats - may not be stable enough to vote for.
“For the average Russian, Putin may not be the best candidate in many domains, but he is the safest candidate because he represents stability and he has maintained a status-quo”, Kobtzeff said.
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