Russians Are Angry, but Putin’s Foes Struggle to Seize the Moment

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MOSCOW — This should be the moment for Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most visible opposition leader.

Many Russians are enraged with the Kremlin over its botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. President Vladimir V. Putin’s approval rating, at 59 percent, is at its lowest ebb since 1999, when he was a lowly prime minister.

At the same time, Mr. Navalny’s audience for his YouTube livestreaming channel tripled as the virus took hold. But whether Mr. Navalny can capitalize on the opportunity remains to be seen.

As Russia fights the coronavirus, the country’s beleaguered opposition, too, finds itself on the back foot. Its proven approach to effecting change — mass street protest — will not be viable for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Navalny and his colleagues are left working from home, pumping out video clips, petitions and social media posts to try to channel the anger of Russians wondering why Mr. Putin has not done more to help them during the biggest domestic crisis of his tenure.

ImageAleksei A. Navalny, center, in Moscow in February with other opposition figures including, from left, Ivan Zhdanov and Lyubov Sobol.
Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“This is the most important thing happening in people’s lives,” Mr. Navalny said, referring to the authorities’ virus-related measures. “In every Moscow apartment, in every Russian apartment, even if they never talked about politics before, they’re talking about this.”

The discontent may be hidden behind apartment walls, but it is increasingly palpable. Anastasia Nikolskaya, a psychologist at Kosygin State University in Moscow, worked with a team to conduct 235 telephone interviews with a cross-section of Russians in May. She said she encountered far more, and far more intense, invective toward the Kremlin than in focus groups she had conducted in years past.

“We are entering a rather acute phase of public discontent,” said Mikhail Dmitriev, an economist and public-opinion expert who reviewed Ms. Nikolskaya’s findings. “If the level of aggressiveness in society remains this high, it will influence people’s political behavior after the quarantine measures are removed.”

Mr. Navalny, a 43-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption activist, has needled Mr. Putin as corrupt and incompetent for more than a decade, dubbing him the head of “a party of crooks and thieves.” He maintains a nationwide network of branch offices and has honed a punchy, populist and sometimes nationalist rhetoric that reaches millions of social-media followers well beyond the urban middle class.

Along the way he has spent stints in jail and under house arrest, and the authorities have raided his offices and frozen his bank accounts. But the Kremlin has continued to let him operate, perhaps fearing that tougher action would only raise his popularity and standing.

Mr. Dmitriev says the coronavirus crisis is a singular moment in Russia’s political history, because the lockdown gave people lots of free time to stew over their sudden economic dislocation.

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Credit…Alexei Nikolskyi/Sputnik, via Reuters

As bars, malls and parks closed, Mr. Navalny — forced to broadcast from a makeshift studio in his living room — saw his online audience spike. His “Navalny Live” YouTube channel reached 10.6 million unique viewers in April, double the total in January and triple the total in April 2019, according to Google data that his team provided to The New York Times. Eighty-two percent of the April 2020 viewers were inside Russia.

“You get the feeling that Putin always got lucky, and now he’s unlucky, and things aren’t going according to the Kremlin’s plan,” said Ivan Zhdanov, who heads Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “There is a window of opportunity opening up.”

Mr. Navalny says the Kremlin is losing the support of Russians who had backed Mr. Putin as their guarantor of order and stability. In confrontations over Ukraine and Syria, Mr. Putin cut the figure of a tough, determined leader.

But when a major crisis hit at home — the country’s total of 387,623 coronavirus infections is the third-highest in the world — Mr. Putin appeared to waffle. He issued confusing edicts, delegated key decisions to regional governors and struggled for weeks to get local officials to pay out bonuses he promised to medical workers.

“Just like that, the emperor turned out to have no clothes,” Mr. Navalny said. “Those who sought and hoped for some kind of order saw totally colossal chaos, a lack of help and utter craziness.”

More than 4,000 Russians have already died of the coronavirus — a number widely seen as an undercount — and even state-run media have carried images of lines of ambulances and full hospitals in Moscow and elsewhere.

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Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

But Mr. Navalny says his most powerful message is an economic one: the idea that for all of Russia’s natural-resource wealth, Mr. Putin is continuing to pad the pockets of those close to him while failing to support the millions of self-employed Russians and service workers who have seen their incomes dry up.

“The officials’ real approach is: ‘Sure, people don’t have any money, but no one has died of hunger,’” Mr. Navalny told the viewers of his live broadcast on Thursday. He went on, sarcastically: “Of course no one has died! Spring is here, it’s berry season, and before this there was birch sap. You need to drink a substantial amount of birch sap to be satiated, but still.”

Russians who work for the government or major companies have been somewhat insulated from the crisis, since they have continued to receive their salaries during the lockdown. But for others, the Kremlin has provided only a meager safety net. There have been no blanket payments like the $1,200 stimulus checks in the United States, only targeted ones like $140 for families with children aged 3 to 15.

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Elena Lerman, a 34-year-old makeup artist in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, said she and her friends in the beauty industry watched each of Mr. Putin’s addresses to the nation in March and April, hoping in vain to hear about relief measures that might compensate them for their shuttered studios and salons.

“It was utter disillusionment,” Ms. Lerman said in a telephone interview. “It confirmed that regular people can only depend on themselves and on those close to them.”

Ms. Lerman tried to make ends meet by offering makeup lessons online. Eventually, she joined her colleagues in quietly returning to work, despite the lockdown.

“It was either die of the coronavirus or die of hunger,” she said.

Ms. Lerman said she now followed politics more closely than she used to and could imagine taking part in protests in the future. But she said she was skeptical of Mr. Navalny, explaining, “I no longer understand who tells the truth.”

Image

Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Shedding light on Mr. Navalny’s far-from-universal appeal, the YouTube statistics provided by his team show that 76 percent of his April viewers were men, and more than half were between the ages of 25 and 44. Harnessing the anger of people like Ms. Lerman will be the biggest task for Mr. Navalny and other activists in the months to come.

The most high-profile focus: Mr. Putin is widely expected to reschedule a referendum on constitutional amendments allowing him to serve as president until 2036 — a vote postponed from April because of the virus — for sometime this summer. And regional elections will take place across the country on Sept. 13.

But the pandemic gives the Kremlin new tools to stifle dissent. Mail-in and online voting, cast as a measure to prevent the spread of the virus, will make it harder for activists to monitor elections. In Moscow this week, the police cited the capital’s continuing coronavirus lockdown to detain journalists staging one-person protests, which are typically allowed.

“Of course the Kremlin is incredibly happy that it’s impossible to hold large-scale opposition protests,” said Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny associate who helped spark rallies in Moscow last summer when she was barred from running in local elections. “We are adjusting to this reality — we can’t change it and invent this vaccine — and we have to use the tools that we have.”

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