Even though most experts agree that 2016 is hardly likely to see a political crisis or large-scale protests in Russia, the risks remain high if the economic situation continues to be volatile and unpredictable.

Police officers stand guard during an opposition rally in Pushkin Square in Moscow, December 12, 2015. Photo: AP

Against the backdrop of worsening signs for Russia’s economy, an increasing number of officials, economists, sociologists and political experts are becoming more pessimistic about the country’s political future.

At last week’s Gaidar Economic Forum, which was held at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow from Jan. 13-15, two expert discussions — “Russia in Crisis: Political Risks in 2016” andPolitical Trends: Assessment, Analysis, Forecast” — brought together Russia’s leading experts to discuss the political and economic future of the country.

Some experts predict that the economic crisis will lead to a political one, with numerous protests becoming a reality in September 2016, both during and after Russia’s parliamentary elections. Others, however, question such a scenario, predicting social unrest in perhaps three or four years.

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There was also discussion about the fate of Russia’s opposition. Some express hopes that 2016 will be a pivotal year for Russia’s opposition, while others believe that the opposition won’t be able to mobilize its resources.

What can drive Russians to the streets?

Russian sociologists, including representatives of the All-Russia Public Opinion Center (WCIOM) and Levada Center, agreed that signs of a brewing crisis have been increasing since 2014-2015, with Russian households under strong pressure.

WCIOM sociologist Oleg Chernozub says that the number of Russians who have admitted that the crisis is an obvious fact and are ready to tighten belts, has increased. Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov sees this trend as “negative social stabilization,” when people try humbly to adjust to the downturn without expressing indignation and taking to the streets.

However, the problem for the Kremlin is to minimize what experts call the “dormant emotional burden” of Russians, which could turn into political actions: the gradually accumulated stress could drive people to the streets.

Tatiana Vorozheikina, an independent political expert and a former researcher at the Levada Center, is very concerned with the current political situation. Despite the fact that the indignation of Russian society hasn’t yet crystallized into real protests, it could gradually grow and translate into something more serious in 2017. “There will be the inertia scenario, but amidst this scenario everything is possible,” she said.

Prominent Russian sociologist, Alexey Levinson, head of Levada Center’s Analytical Department, also believes that the situation is risky. Any mistakes of the authorities, even though insignificant, might lead to grave consequences, he warns. 

“People understand what the President wants — the President understands what the people want,” he said. “And they are moving together harmoniously in a dance. But a wrong step might lead to grave consequences.”

At the same time, Leonid Gozman, democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, argues that the feeling of being humiliated, not economic woes, might lead people to the streets.

“People won’t put up with humiliation,” he said, pointing to “a moral aspect” of the risks that might trigger protests. He gives the example of the large-scale protests in 2011-12 – protests that were spurred by the fact that people felt offended by alleged fraud during the 2011 parliamentary elections.     

However, Mikhail Vinogradov, the president of the St. Petersburg Fund, is skeptical about the current potential of the protest movement, because there is no team spirit among most protesters and this makes them passive rather than active.

Economics doesn’t translate into politics (so far)

Meanwhile, another expert at WCIOM, Vladimir Petukhov, argues, “Economics doesn’t translate into politics so far.” In other words, politics is perceived separately from the economy, according to him.

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The explanation is that the population sees the crisis less alarmingly than experts. There are not real protest sentiments in Russia, they are rather “declarative” in their nature, he believes.

Protests and strikes are not in demand given the legal restrictions and the risks of being imprisoned. New Russian legislation produces a sort of chilling effect on hypothetical protesters.

However, Russians are ready to take to the streets to protest in the case of serious crisis and increasing unemployment. Psychologically and mentally, the population is not ready for such a scenario, Petukhov added.

Likewise, Alexei Zubets, the head of the sociology department at Moscow's Financial University, doesn’t rule the possibility of social protests because of the increasing poverty. However, he points out, the number of poor people who cannot make their ends meet is relatively small among young people, the major driver of any protests, Zubets argue.

In contrast, Lydia Ovcharova, the director of the Independent Institute for Social Policy, is more skeptical about unemployment among young people. So far, there haven’t been large-scale dismissals among young people, but currently they are also struggling to find a job. So, this might be a dormant political risk, which could lead to social unrest. 

At the same time, Ovcharova believes that the Russian population has enough experience in tackling poverty, as indicated by previous three crises that were accompanied by inflation shocks, defaults and salary cuts. It is not the poverty the Kremlin should be afraid of, but inequality, especially, inequality between regions. According to Ovcharova, the authorities underestimate this risk.   

Is political crisis inevitable?

Most interesting, some opposition and pro-Kremlin figures agreed that a crisis is inevitable. It is not a matter of if, but when. For example, Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition politician and former Duma member, believes that, with the exacerbation of the economic crisis, growing expenses and decreasing incomes, it becomes “obvious” that protests will take place and the opposition should jump at the opportunity to use this economic crisis in 2016 in its favor.

Likewise, famous Russian political expert Dmitry Oreshkin doesn’t rule out that the opposition and some part of the elites will try to use the elections to mobilize voters against the authorities. However, he doesn’t mean that the opposition will succeed during the elections.

Moreover, the participants of the discussion “Political Trends: Assessment, Analysis, Forecast” were skeptical about the odds of the liberal and nationalist parties to improve their standing during the elections.

“It is indicative that political experts don’t rely on politics,” said Gozman,the moderator of the discussion, implying that the Russian opposition doesn’t have chances to win.

However, some pro-Kremlin pundits, including political expert Sergey Markov, a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber, believe that the political crisis may happen in September 2016, in the wake of the parliamentary elections, not because of the opposition, but because of what he describes as “the [West’s] hybrid war against Russia” and a preparation for another Maidan.

However, Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, believes that it is hardly likely: The Kremlin will try to avoid fraud during the elections to prevent protests because the situation during a period of economic crisis remains unpredictable and volatile.

Similarly, Georgy Satarov, politician, political scientist and a former aide to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, warns that the current situation is increasingly unstable, which makes it even worse and more difficult to control.   

One of Russia’s best-known political experts, Gleb Pavlovsky, echoes Satarov. He argues that “all successes of the authorities were related to its ability to pass ahead” and prevent the crisis. Now it is not the case anymore, because the Kremlin today is “falling behind.” The result of this may be “impressive,” he concludes, implying that the authorities might lose control over the situation in the future.

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However, Russian political expert Dmitry Orlov seems to be more optimistic. He argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin has enough political resources to be reelected in 2018 and prevent any social unrest. Even though he admits that there might be local protests, they won’t turn into national ones.      

Traders of fears

Joseph Diskin, another member of Russia’s Civic Chamber, argues that there are no political risks for Russia. In times of worsening economic and social conditions, people think about their own survival, not protests, he said.

According to him, fueling fears of political upheaval is beneficial for “the traders of fears” — politicians, political experts, members of the government — those who purposely exaggerate these risks to reach their professional and personal goals. Diskin believes that Russia needs a positive agenda to counterbalance the negative one.

However, Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert from Carnegie Moscow Center, disagree. “We are drawing the image of our wishful future, but it is necessary to start with the image of the future we don’t want,” he said during the expert discussion “Political Trends: Assessment, Analysis, Forecast.”

It is the matter of a negative start of a positive program, he added. To give an example, he referred to research conducted by Carnegie Moscow Center. Its interns counted 30 laws in the Russian legislation that should be eliminated. Among them: the Dima Yakovlev law that forbids the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans, laws on foreign agents and undesirable organizations and the law that expands the rights of law enforcement offices.