As the countdown to regional elections begins, the Russian economy shows no positive signs and Moscow’s close ally of Belarus descends into political chaos.
Russia’s seemingly invincible leader Vladimir Putin is facing multiple challenges as growing economic hardship and protests hit the country ahead of the September regional elections. The country’s most powerful opposition leader has been flown to Germany and the government there says he was most likely poisoned.
Like the Donald Trump administration, Moscow has also been criticised for its bad handling of the pandemic, which has continued to hammer the country. Russia is one of the top four worst-hit states.
But beyond all, two political developments have appeared to test the nerves of Putin, who has revamped the Russian constitution in order to allow him to run for two more presidential terms. In short, it means the 67-year old spy-turned-president could stay in power until his death.
One is the recent hospitalisation of Alexei Navalny, the most prominent critic of Putin. It came after the Russian politician mysteriously fell ill on a long flight from the country’s faraway province of Siberia en route to Moscow.
Navalny’s allies believe he was poisoned like other critics in the past, after he drank tea in an airport cafe prior to his flight.
The incident triggered widespread international media coverage as some Western leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, have called Putin to investigate Navalny’s case. He was evacuated to Berlin after his wife sent a direct plea to Putin to allow his transfer abroad. After several delays, Navalny, who has been in coma since the incident, was allowed to go to Germany.
The whole incident has raised the perception that the Kremlin wants to get rid of yet another political opponent, using the Cold War-era killing method.
Navalny was in Siberia to persuade the province’s opposition forces to unite under a single candidate in the upcoming regional elections in September. The aim would have been to try and defeat Putin in a region well-known for state atrocities against dissent. Siberia is also notorious as playing host to political prisoners from the Tsarist period up until the times of the communist Soviet Union.
As Navalny went to Siberia, large protests began occurring in Belarus, a Russian-majority state in Eastern Europe. Belarus has been led by a staunch ally of Putin, Alexander Lukashenko, who has held onto power for more than two decades.
Navalny and his allies celebrated Belarusian protests, seeing it as an inspiration for Russian dissenters to go after Putin.
Some analysts have also argued that the Lukashenko’s troubles are a bad omen for Putin, whose approval ratings recently dropped to their lowest levels during his rule, according to different surveys.
“Here (in Belarus) is an example for Russian civil society. So it’s of direct interest to Putin. For him, the Belarusian protests must be unsuccessful as it would be uncomfortable for him to see a protest success story in a neighbouring ‘brotherly’ state,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The protests in Belarus have grown since the apparent election irregularities in the presidential elections on August 9, for which both incumbent Lukashenko, who Western commentators refer to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’, and the opposition, claimed victory.
Russian protests in Far East
In Khabarovsk in the Far East of Russia, 9,000 km (5,590 miles) away from Belarus - which has been often referred to as the White Russia - there are some rare protests taking place against Moscow. These are down to the fact that the Kremlin removed its governor over criminal charges dating back to the 2000s. The governor was originally elected from an opposition platform with possible ties to the Russian leadership.
Despite the distance between the two, it appears that a common cause joins protesters in Belarus and Russia’s Far East against the Putin-Lukashenko axis.
“I see parallels between Belarus and Khabarovsk. Not because we’re all protesters, but because we are united by the same thing: the right to vote and take part in honest elections,” a protester from Khabarovsk said.
Local protesters in Khabarovsk held placards, showing solidarity with the Belarussian opposition, chanting slogans like “Moscow Get Out” and “Putin Step Down”.
One of the hand-written signs read: “Khabarovsk is with you, Belarus.”
Before suddenly falling ill, two weeks ago, an excited Navalny welcomed the Khabarovsk protests as the “biggest in the city’s history” declaring his support on Twitter: “Far East, We Are With You!”
But despite protests in Belarus and Russia’s far east, Putin, who came to power more as a result of Kremlin political manoeuvrings, rather than democratic elections, does not appear to be someone who will bow down to popular unrest, nor Western criticism of his management style.
“If he hasn’t made it abundantly clear by now, Putin hates protests. Ever since he was a KGB officer based in Dresden, in East Germany, and watched as protests eroded the Soviet empire, he has viewed popular protests as harbingers of instability, violence and, worse, the collapse of the state,” Julia Loffe, a political analyst on Russia, wrote in the Washington Post.
“It was the reason that, in 2005, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe.’ Two years ago, he reprised the sentiment, saying he would undo the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. (Soviet Union), if he could.”