In Geopolitical Futures’ forecast for 2016, we stated that Russia is facing both strategic and economic problems. The country is dependent on commodity prices, which it cannot control, and the buffer zone between Russia and Europe is disintegrating. Russia’s regime depends on three factors in order to maintain power: the security services, distribution of economic resources to elites and the acquiescence of the country’s population.
We are now observing, however, a shift in the Russian population’s popular position. According to an opinion poll conducted in December by the independent Levada Center, 63 percent of Russians support an ongoing protest by truck drivers over a new road toll. In the Russian context, this is a significant development because even during the large street protests that took place in 2011-2012, support for protesters, as a percentage, fluctuated between the high 30s and low 40s, according to Levada Center polling at the time.
This shift in public opinion stems largely from economic factors. Of the respondents who said that they support the protesting truck drivers, 39 percent indicated that they believe tolls on highways will lead to higher prices of consumer goods. Furthermore, 46 percent of respondents who support the truckers expressed outrage at the idea of new fees for formerly free services, while 39 percent agreed that it is outrageous that the new tolls will be collected by a private company.
Russia’s economy has suffered greatly as world oil prices have plunged and the country’s currency, the ruble, has greatly weakened. In the third quarter, government statistics showed that Russia’s GDP shrank by 4.1 percent when compared to the same time period the previous year. Moreover, the World Bank predicts that the country’s GDP will decline by 0.7 percent in 2016, but that estimate is based on oil prices of $49.4 per barrel. Today, Brent crude traded at around $37 per barrel — close to an 11-year low.
Domestic stability is a priority for the Kremlin. Over the past several years, Russian decision-makers have used a mix of tools, from legislation to coercive measures, to consolidate power and limit any potential dissent. Russian leaders also used the country’s energy revenues to boost spending in the hope of avoiding unrest. But now that energy prices are low and the Kremlin has been forced to implement budget cuts, the Kremlin has fewer means of limiting dissent. The Russian regime is still in control, but Russia is weakening and public opinion is turning, and we can expect a more vulnerable Kremlin to use all remaining tools at its disposal to try to quash social unrest.