MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin is marking 20 years in power, but the celebrations are decidedly muted.
That’s because the once high-riding former KGB intelligence officer is dealing with a sharp slump in polls, a fatal accident in one of the military’s prize programs and — when he looks out his window at the Kremlin — the largest opposition protests in almost a decade.
Up to 60,000 protesters rallied in the Russian capital on Saturday, according to an independent monitoring group. It was the fifth straight weekend that the invigorated pro-democracy movement had protested in Moscow to demand that opposition candidates be allowed to run in elections for the city legislature on Sept. 8.
“Putin is a thief,” protesters chanted as they flooded Sakharov Avenue under the watchful eyes of thousands of riot police and troops in body armor. The main rally, which was sanctioned, passed largely without incident, but police later detained over 250 peaceful protesters as they tried to gather outside the presidential administration near the Kremlin.
As riot police made arrests, one masked officer punched a woman in the stomach and others seized a man with cerebral palsy and hauled him away to a waiting police truck to the jeers of onlookers.
“This is our country, and we have to stop being so afraid to demand what we want to see happen here,” said Elizaveta, a young protester who declined to provide her surname. “Things won’t change until we do.”
No one here is close to writing off Mr. Putin, who as president and prime minister has been effectively the only leader this country has known this century. His role in rebuilding Russia’s power and national self-esteem in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos and economic dislocation of the 1990s remains the bedrock of his power.
But his sky-high popularity ratings after the 2014 annexation of Crimea are a distant memory, while efforts at a domestic overhaul — including an unpopular pension reform — have clearly dented Mr. Putin’s authority.
“There is a sense of the government’s moral decay,” Lev Gudkov, a pollster at the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center, recently told the German DW news website. “And any hope that Putin could deal with that corruption and start paying more attention to social policy aimed at satisfying the demands of the people is dissolving.
“The time when society blindly trusted the president and approved his policies has passed,” Sergei Polyakov, a Moscow-based political analyst, said in an interview with the Vedomosti newspaper. “Trust and approval [are] lower, and people want to participate in the making of decisions. If this demand is not met, then the protests will grow.”
In a rare moment of political vulnerability, the news of a fatal accident at the Russian navy’s testing range in the northwestern Arkhangelsk region was particularly ill-timed for Mr. Putin, with echoes of crises of the Soviet Union days including the potential for nuclear fallout and a failure of officials in charge to communicate. Five nuclear engineers killed in Thursday’s incident were buried Monday in the city of Sarov.
Police have arrested over 2,000 people, including dozens of children, since protests over the City Duma elections began July 13. Although most were quickly released, 12 people are facing long sentences on charges of participating in “mass unrest.” One protester could face up to eight years behind bars for throwing an empty plastic bottle at officers. In contrast, video has shown police beating protesters with nightsticks.
Authorities have also threatened to remove a 1-year-old boy from a couple who briefly attended a peaceful protest with their son on July 27. “This is terrifying,” said Dmitry Prokazov, the boy’s father. “Child protection services could come and take our child away at any moment.”
Critics say such heavy-handed measures are aimed at intimidating protesters. The tactic appears to have failed because attendance at Saturday’s opposition demonstration was almost three times higher than a July 20 rally at the same location. A Levada opinion poll published last week said 37% of Muscovites back the protests and 27% oppose them. The protests are the largest since over 100,000 people took to the streets to protest electoral fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections.
Most of the aspiring opposition candidates have been jailed for up to 30 days on protest-related charges. Alexei Navalny, the prominent Kremlin critic, is serving a brief sentence for urging people to rally outside City Hall. Investigators last week accused his anti-corruption organization of laundering millions of dollars. His allies deny the charge and say it is politically motivated.
Officials said the aspiring pro-democracy candidates faked some of the signatures that they were required to gather from supporters to make it onto the ballot for the City Duma polls. The opposition says the accusation is a lie aimed at preventing Mr. Putin’s critics from gaining a foothold on Russia’s electoral ladder.
“The last illusion that we are able to participate legally in politics has disappeared,” said Dmitry Gudkov, one of the Kremlin critics who has been barred from the elections.
Lyubov Sobol, another would-be opposition candidate, was seized by riot police over allegations that she was planning a “provocation” at Saturday’s rally. “I won’t make it to the protest. But you know what to do without me. … Russia will be free!” she tweeted. Ms. Sobol, 31, has been on a hunger strike since mid-July to try to force officials to allow her on the ballot next month.
Although the 45-seat City Duma has few significant powers, the Kremlin is clearly concerned that allowing opposition figures to win seats would boost their popularity and encourage further dissent.
“This is a crisis for the Kremlin,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Mr. Putin and now a political consultant. “People are demanding political representation. But Putin cannot give into their demands because there is a great risk that opposition candidates will win. And then Putin’s political system will start to crumble.”
The protests are also rapidly transforming into a broader show of discontent with Mr. Putin, who was named prime minister by ailing President Boris Yeltsin on Aug. 9, 1999. Mr. Yeltsin appointed him president just three months later.
Aside from the election row in Moscow, analysts say, an unpopular five-year increase in the pension age and widespread poverty have contributed to a slide in Mr. Putin’s ratings. Over a quarter of all Russian children are living in families with monthly incomes of less than $150, according to government statistics.
An opinion poll published last week by the state-linked FOM pollster indicated that just 43% of Russians would vote for Mr. Putin in a presidential election — his lowest figures since April 2001. United Russia, Mr. Putin’s ruling party, has the support of just 13% of voters, according to another poll. The party’s brand is so toxic that its candidates are all standing as nominally “independent” at the City Duma polls.
Russian officials have accused Western countries of encouraging the opposition. Last week, the Foreign Ministry summoned Tim Richardson from the U.S. Embassy’s political section over a tweet that showed the route of an Aug. 3 opposition rally, along with a note advising American visitors to avoid the area.
State media outlets have largely ignored the protests and focused for the past two weekends on hastily arranged gastro and music festivals in Moscow’s iconic Gorky Park. A number of artists have refused to perform at the state-organized festivals, calling them an official distraction from the crisis of the day.
In contrast, some of Russia’s biggest stars are backing the opposition. Face, a massively popular rapper, defied a ban on music at Saturday’s protest. “I honestly don’t get politics,” Face told the crowd during his short performance. “But free elections are the most basic thing, and I hope that one day we will have them.”