- - Sunday, January 17, 2016

MOSCOW — Svetlana Titova, a 29-year-old real estate agent from Moscow, used to consider herself one of the success stories of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long rule.

But as Russia’s economy buckles under the combined weight of Western sanctions and tumbling global prices for oil, the linchpin of the country’s economy, Ms. Titova and millions of Russians like her who once strongly backed Mr. Putin are feeling the strain.

“I used to have plenty of money to spare at the end of the month,” Ms. Titova told The Washington Times. “But now I’m struggling to make it from one payday to the next.”

While Ms. Titova was reluctant to attribute blame for her financial difficulties, Russia’s deepening economic woes are stirring up discontent even among Mr. Putin’s traditional supporters, who had kept his personal popularity sky-high despite the economy’s woes and sharp criticism of his rule from the Obama administration and many in Europe.

The Russian ruble has lost around 60 percent of its value against the dollar since 2014, and the cost of living is rocketing for ordinary people. Inflation is running at around 13 percent, while real wages have gone down for the first time since Mr. Putin took power, falling almost 10 percent in the last year.

At least 23 million Russians — 16 percent of the total population — are now living below the official poverty level of less than $170 a month, according to government figures. That is an increase of 3 million people in some 18 months. Last week, Anton Siluanov, Russia’s finance minister, warned that plummeting oil prices mean the government will be forced to make further cuts to its 2016 budget.

Onetime Putin supporters are now hitting the road — literally — to signal their unhappiness with the status quo.

The most visible indication of a growing frustration is an ongoing protest by long-distance truckers, who have threatened to blockade Moscow’s main ring road over a controversial Kremlin-backed toll. The truckers, who have set up a camp at a parking lot near Moscow, say the new road tax, which will impose a payment of around a penny per mile on trucks weighing over 12 tons, will ruin them.

“The authorities want to take everything from us,” Gennady, a trucker from St. Petersburg, told The Washington Times, declining to allow his full name to be used. “They want to take our hard-earned money to line their own pockets.”

Some truckers have even dared to highlight the fact that the company running the payment collection system for the new road tax is owned by the son of Arkady Rotenberg, described as an old friend and sometime-judo sparring partner for Mr. Putin.

“To be honest, I thought until the very last moment that Uncle Vova was going to say there was a mistake,” trucker Ivan Alutai from the town of Petrozavodsk told the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service, using the Russian diminutive for Mr. Putin’s first name. “Uncle Vova has lost my trust.”

The protest has the Kremlin rattled because the truckers and blue-collar workers like them have long been seen as the bedrock of Mr. Putin’s popularity. Pro-Kremlin politician Yevgeny Fyodorov, a senior member of Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party, has accused the United States of orchestrating the introduction of the tax to “destabilize” Russia.

Restless base

It’s not only the truckers who are up in arms.

Teachers in eastern Siberia have also gone on strike over the nonpayment of their salaries, while doctors in central Russia have protested layoffs. In Moscow, residents of a residential building recently recorded a furious video address to Mr. Putin, whose government they accused of embarking on a costly war in Syria instead of focusing on much-needed repairs to housing stock.

“Putin, it seems someone is bombing us too!” shouted the residents, as they stood in front of their crumbling apartment block.

Anger is also growing among owners of small and medium businesses.

“It’s not Barack Obama who is responsible for our prohibitively high interest rates,” businessman Dmitry Potapenko told a recent high-profile economic roundtable in Russia.

He also accused Russian tax inspectors and economic crimes police of being “significantly worse” than the criminal gangs who terrorized Russian businesses in the 1990s. Mr. Potapenko’s outburst turned him into an overnight celebrity, and a YouTube video of his speech has so far been watched over 3 million times.

While state-run media blames what it calls Western “hostility” for Russia’s mounting economic misery, members of the intellectual elite are increasingly speaking out about what they say is corruption and mismanagement by Mr. Putin and his inner circle.

Earlier this month, Vladislav Inozemtsov, professor of economics at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, publicly accused Mr. Putin of squandering revenues from years of sky-high oil prices, missing the chance to drastically increase living standards for nearly 143 million people.

“There have only been the same beautiful promises year after year,” he wrote in a widely discussed article published by the independent RBC business newspaper.

Allegations that the family of Russia’s general prosecutor, Yury Chaika, has business links to the country’s most notorious crime gang have also sparked public anger. The Kremlin has refused to order an investigation into the accusations, which were made in an online film produced by activists with opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption organization.

Although Mr. Putin’s approval ratings remain high — if the opinion polls are to be believed — widening discontent clearly has the authorities rattled ahead of parliamentary elections in September. The previous State Duma polls, held in 2011, triggered unprecedented anti-Putin protests in Moscow, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets over vote-rigging in favor of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party.

In an apparent sign that the Kremlin is preparing for new mass protests, lawmakers recently rushed through a bill that gives state security officers the right to open fire on crowds. The courts have also begun to enforce strict new anti-protest legislation that stipulates up to five years in prison for repeated attendance at “illegal” demonstrations. Russia’s Interior Ministry has also increased fourfold its orders for the Soviet-designed RGS-50M grenade launcher, which fires tear gas and rubber bullets.

Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow and now an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, said there were limited avenues for popular discontent to express itself against Mr. Putin in today’s Russia.

“They’ve got the television and all media locked down thoroughly,” Mr. Wood told the BBC last week. “They’ve got critics locked down thoroughly. They have recently given the police the right to fire on crowds should they wish to do so, including women and children.”

But Mr. Putin will have to be vigilant to keep the unhappiness from spreading, analysts said.

“In order to hold on to power, Putin has no choice but to turn the screws,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst whose vote-monitoring project helped sparked the 2011 election protests. “But he won’t be able to jail just one or two people — he will need to imprison dozens or even hundreds.”

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