Reuters Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin, April 2017.

Why Protests Keep Putin Up at Night

The Fears of a Strongman

By all appearances, Russian President Vladimir Putin is at the height of his power. He currently enjoys domestic approval ratings of over 80 percent. He has sidelined, if not repressed, any serious political opposition. And by all accounts, he has full control over the Russian state apparatus, not least the so-called power ministries, such as the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior. 

Despite his solid grip on power, Putin appeared alarmed when, at the end of March, Russian citizens in dozens of cities suddenly appeared in the streets to peacefully protest official corruption. The government responded by having as many as 1,000 of the protestors, including the leader of the opposition, Alexey Navalny, arrested. Why such concern by a political leader who appears to be so fully in control? 

Putin’s uneasiness can be attributed to three causes: the limits to authoritarianism; the particular threat posed to him by corruption allegations; and the challenge of maintaining his regime’s legitimacy under a stagnating economy.

The first of these causes relates to a paradox at the heart of authoritarian power: in such a system, perceptions of a leader’s invincibility can change rather quickly. To date, there has never been a revolution in a liberal democracy. The most likely explanation is also the simplest one: in a liberal democracy, there is always hope that even a despised leader can be removed from office through constitutional means. But in authoritarian systems there is no procedure for the people to remove a leader except by revolution.

Putin is at the height of his power. Why such concern?

Russia is not technically an authoritarian state, since it has at least the semblance of elections and a political opposition. Most political scientists characterize it instead as a hybrid regime, containing a mix of authoritarian and democratic elements. Although elections in Russia are hardly free, they do exist, and the political system relies on them to provide some legitimacy for those in power. The hybrid nature of color revolutions, such as the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, as well as the 2011–12 Russian protests centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia is facing a presidential election next year, and Navalny, who inspired the recent protests, plans to run as a candidate. There is little doubt that Putin will win, but the election process itself creates a slight vulnerability, as it could become a focal point for popular discontent.

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