In Stratfor's 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, we pointed out the Kremlin's intensifying domestic challenges, including dissatisfaction over corruption, which increasingly manifests in protests. So far, the Kremlin has weathered the storm, though unforeseen events like the Kemerovo fire challenge the government's position.
The small Russian city of Kemerovo is making waves across the nation following a deadly fire at a shopping mall. On March 25, the blaze claimed nearly 70 people, including 41 children, along with a zoo full of animals. And in the days since, protests around the country have forced the Kremlin to turn its eye toward the growing internal crisis.
The common theme among the demonstrations is a powerful condemnation of corruption, which many protesters have highlighted as the fundamental cause of the mall fire. Demonstrators are blaming Putin's government for allowing corrupt behaviors to flourish in institutions such as the fire response services, the local administration in Keremovo and the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, causing a dangerous lack of oversight and inadequate services. Signs bearing the statement "corruption kills" have been prevalent across the country, and demonstrators are calling for the removal of several high-level officials, including Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev, Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov and, in some cases, President Vladimir Putin.
Putin's typical theatrical shows of sympathy are not having their usual effect when it comes to pacifying the Russian population.
Though key opposition members, such as Alexei Navalny, coordinate most large-scale Russian protests, the current wave of demonstrations grew organically through social and local media. What started as a few hundred protesters in the streets March 27 swelled to tens of thousands after Russian officials mishandled several public appearances. Tuleyev dismissed the demonstrators — many of whom were victims' family members — as opposition-backed ralliers. And a variety of high-level Russian officials claimed the family members were choosing to court media attention instead of mourning. In a particularly damaging remark, one Kemerovo official even brushed off the incident by asking why people were in such a panic when children die every day. Putin, meanwhile, didn't meet with the victims' families on a trip to Kemerovo; a staged photograph of the president on a hospital visit later caused backlash online. Avoiding families and staging photo ops are common techniques for the Kremlin when dealing with domestic tragedies and typically have the desired effect of calming dissent. This time, however, they only stoked the public's outrage.
The large demonstrations developed spontaneously in 20 cities, and Moscow's 15,000 protesters — including many children and youths — managed to gather without organizing formally or obtaining official city permits. Russia's populace has been growing more politically charged over the past year, a trend that will continue as the Kremlin's internal issues keep mounting. The question now is whether the Kemerovo tragedy will coalesce into a larger movement. If it does, it would add to Putin's many domestic problems, which include a stagnant economy, unrest over environmental and economic issues, plans for unpopular tax hikes, and infighting among his elites. Facing all these challenges at once, the president — who won re-election just weeks ago — may falter in his fourth term. Here's what we're watching for at Stratfor:
Can the Protests Outlast the Tragedy?
The anti-corruption protests in response to Kemerovo have been fairly unorganized so far, but if various opposition groups get involved, demonstrators could mobilize in greater numbers. For example, the protests could grow significantly if Navalny, a highly influential figure, steps into a leadership role. The Kremlin may be more willing to crack down on the movement if the demonstrations remain dispersed. Should they merge with other brewing protests, however — such as those over poisoned children in the Moscow suburbs and over wage cuts in St. Petersburg — that could change. The Kremlin would be under even more pressure to appease the public and would risk even greater dissent if it did decide to implement a crackdown.
How Will the Kremlin Play the Blame Game?
As many Russians continue to demand punishment for officials, Russia's Investigative Committee has arrested five people in connection to the fire. However, those detained don't include Tulyeyev and Puchkov, both of whom have Putin's staunch support. Traditionally, the Russian leader bucks against calls to sack his loyal officials. But with Russia heading toward pivotal regional elections in September, Putin may be more wary of siding with his cronies and possibly endangering the support of his base. Most likely, the Kremlin will target additional people involved in the Kemerovo incident, but their seniority — and the severity of the punishment (if any) — will impact further public backlash.
Can Putin Continue to Pacify the Public?
The Russian leader's typical theatrical shows of sympathy are not having their usual effect when it comes to pacifying the Russian population. Amid mounting internal crises, the president may need to shift tactics if he wants to quell the unrest. However, it's not yet clear what new tools Putin will turn to in order to replace his traditional methods of national calls and public shows. The growing political discourse in Russia will no doubt shape Putin's plans for his fourth term.
How Will the Government Handle the Media?
In general, Russian media offered a vocal and negative response to the Kremlin's handling of the Kemerovo fire. Social media has been integral to spreading outrage and grim details, and even some state or state-linked media have followed suit. We'll be watching to see what tactics the Kremlin will use to curb the spread of public debate, information and dissatisfaction within the country, such as it can without sparking a much larger outcry.