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Putin’s landslide “victory” in March took some steam out of the protest movement but it is unlikely to disappear altogether. The reason has to do with the emergence of a new force in Russian politics, a politically engaged, young, urban middle class that is not content to stand by passively while Putin destroys the country’s governing institutions. Mobilized by online social media like Twitter and blogs, this new generation of activists has been extraordinarily successful in exposing government corruption, most notably the massive vote rigging in what passes for Russian elections. While it remains to be seen whether they can sustain the record number of protestors that poured into the streets of Russian capitals this winter, they are clearly intent on challenging the government going forward.
Putin’s answer to the protestors, aside from police harassment and periodic crackdowns, has been to claim that they are not representative of broader society, which remains supportive of him. There is some truth to that, but the support that Putin does enjoy is precarious and conditional. In the past, Putin has relied on steady economic growth and lavish social spending to keep his base of provincial and working-class voters happy. The problem is that it was a social compact bought with oil revenue, which has declined in recent years. When Putin first took power in 2000, high oil prices allowed the government to bankroll its spending programs and balance the budget. Spending has increased since then and Russian analysts say that oil will have to stay above $117 per barrel if Russia is to avoid a budget deficit. With oil currently trading at $120 per barrel, the government is living dangerously.
If oil revenue doesn’t materialize, Putin could be in trouble. Underpinning his latest campaign was a promise to boost government spending for a wide array of constituencies, from teachers to soldiers. Such a spending spree is estimated to run the government $160 billion over the next six years, and there is growing alarm that Putin will not be able to cover the bill if the oil spigot slows. The prominent Russian economist Sergei Guriev recently speculated that the government may simply “run out of cash.” Should Putin renege on his spending promises, he could face a backlash that goes beyond the restive urban middle class.
That prospect should be Putin’s biggest fear. For now, he can still rig elections with impunity and set state police on the protestors who denounce his destruction of Russian democracy. The great unknown of his third term is what Putin will be prepared to do when he can no longer afford to bribe Russians for their support.
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