They are anti-government demonstrators protesting falling living standards in Russia. And a surprising new poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center shows the Russian public warming up to them considerably. Of the 1,600 respondents polled across Russia between February 20-23, a shocking 60 percent say they sympathize with anti-government protests and 23 percent say they are ready to join them.
And check this out as a point of contrast: Asked their attitudes toward pro-government demonstrations organized by the Kremlin, 41 percent said they were indifferent, just 31 percent expressed support, and 11 percent said they were opposed.
The Levada Center has a stellar reputation as an independent polling outfit -- and these numbers must be causing some lost sleep in the Kremlin. Speaking to the daily "Vedomosti," Levada-Center Assistant Director Aleksei Grazhdankin suggested the results show that the public appears to be souring on the authorities:
This, of course, means the Kremlin will have a much harder time marginalizing and discrediting the protesters, as they were effectively able to do in the past.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that the protests in Vladivostok over a controversial increase in auto-import tariffs were a watershed of sorts in that they attracted a wider cross section of the population, drawing in people who were otherwise not inclined to take to the streets. And as both Robert Coalson and I have noted here in the past, smaller and more subtle forms of dissent are increasingly popping up in the most unexpected places.
Ilya Yashin of the opposition Solidarity movement tells "Vedomosti" that a fresh wave of demonstrations is scheduled for April and May in several regions including the Far East, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, and Sochi. "The absence of a legitimate opposition and genuine trade unions that makes street protests the only option," he said.
The authorities, meanwhile, appear to be scrambling to keep pace with public opinion.
President Dmitry Medvedev met on March 4 with the first 100 members of his "Golden 1,000" -- a group of officials who have been recruited to bring fresh blood into the political elite:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's de facto leader, meanwhile, put on his best populist face and met staff and job seekers at an employment center in Podolsk, in the Moscow Oblast.
After telling a staff member that the wait time at the center "should not exceed 30 minutes," he tried to comfort those seeking employment. He told a woman identified as Ms. Romanova, who recently lost her job as an Internet service provider, that by "the first quarter of next year" the sagging economy should show signs of improvement:
We have to develop an effective support system, that is why I have come here in order to see how all this is working in practice, if it is working at all and if it is, how it is working.
This spring -- when many economists expect the Russian public to begin really feel the effects of the economic crisis -- could turn out to be very very interesting.
-- Brian Whitmore