Kremlin struggles to defuse protests in Putin heartland

Protesters in Russia’s Yekaterinburg against President Vladimir Putin’s rule.(AFP pic)

MOSCOW: A confrontation with authorities in Russia’s fourth-largest city has become the latest example of spreading public discontent with President Vladimir Putin’s rule amid rising hardship as the economy sputters.

Police sealed off Yekaterinburg’s popular central park Thursday to try to stamp out nightly protests this week by thousands of people against plans to build an Orthodox cathedral there. Riot police detained at least 26 people in clashes on Tuesday as activists pulled down temporary fencing at the site that was guarded by members of a local martial arts club hired by one of the project’s sponsors.

“Residents are simply outraged by the way they’re being treated,” said Anna Baltina, a local children’s choir leader who’s helped coordinate opposition to the plan. While “the Church and the authorities are turning to force,” the protests will only increase, she said.

The conflict in the Urals city of 1.5 million is part of a surge of protests as Russians vent their frustration with officials, often on grassroots issues, while living standards stagnate with little sign of improvement ahead. Activists in 26 regions have staged protests against plans to move Moscow’s excess trash to their areas, including at least 3,000 last month in the northern city of Arkhangelsk. More than 100 were arrested at May Day protests in St. Petersburg and other cities. Thousands have taken to the streets in Russia’s southern Ingushetia region against government plans for a land swap with neighbouring Chechnya.

The activism follows widespread anger after Putin pushed through an increase in the pension age last year, triggering protests in 40 cities and a backlash in September’s regional elections, when four pro-Kremlin candidates for governor were forced into runoffs in the usually rubber-stamp votes.

Dead end
The authorities have responded to the rising unhappiness by tightening controls over the internet, imposing criminal penalties for criticising the government and toughening rules on protests.

“For the first time in years there’s a growing sense of pessimism,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the independent Moscow-based Levada Center polling organisation. “People are starting to feel they’re in a dead end and that’s when their patience snaps and people go onto the streets,” he said.

A Levada poll in February showed 62% of Russians worried most about rising prices and 44% about growing poverty, while 41% cited corruption as their biggest concern. Though Putin’s approval rating remains high by western standards at about 65%, it’s down from more than 80% following his 2014 annexation of Crimea that prompted international sanctions. Those penalties helped tip Russia’s economy into an almost two-year recession from which it’s emerged with only anemic growth, as consumers wrestle with a spike in inflation and declining real wages.

This is a new type of protest by Russians “against the actions of authorities that specifically touch their lives,” rather than the political demands of demonstrations in Moscow, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant. “I think it will continue,” though the authorities may respond harshly soon if protests spread, he said.

Popular discontent
In Yekaterinburg, the hometown of Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, the protests appear to be “a genuine case of popular discontent” that may spur demonstrations in other regions, said Evgeny Gontmakher, a former government official who’s a specialist on social policy. “Repressive methods won’t solve this problem. The authorities have to learn to talk to the people,” he said.

Putin took a conciliatory tone when asked about the situation in Yekaterinburg at a media event Thursday, saying “a cathedral should unify people, not divide them.”’ He urged officials to conduct a survey of local residents to gauge support for the project. Within an hour, the city’s mayor, Alexander Vysokinsky, agreed, while saying initially that construction preparations would continue. After visiting the protest, he said work will be halted until the poll results are known in about two weeks.

A May 14-16 telephone poll of 300 residents carried out by the Socium Foundation found 55% opposed a cathedral in the park and two-thirds wanted a referendum on the subject. A survey of 400 people it conducted last August showed 41% supported the project and 24% were against.

The regional governor for Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Kuivashev, called representatives of the two sides to a meeting at his residence on Tuesday to try to defuse tensions. It’s a “difficult situation,” though “street conflicts aren’t the way to solve problems,” he wrote on Instagram.

The meeting was “a circus” and officials showed no readiness to negotiate, said Baltina, who attended the talks. “The conflict, unfortunately, is snowballing,” she said.

“Russia is a country where you get sudden explosions,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “People are endlessly patient and then it blows up.”