The Kremlin has reacted to continuing protests over election fraud and what the protestors see as the illegitimacy of the regime by toughening the law on mass meetings and is beginning to wield the newly adopted law against protestors and the protest leaders.  The protests have been centered in Moscow and do not by themselves represent a threat to President Vladimir Putin, but the Kremlin is anxious to prevent the protest movement from expanding and is nervously watching the financial crisis in Europe as oil prices, the mainstay of the Russian budget, have fallen.

The latest mass demonstration in the Russian capital was on Russia Day (June 12), which commemorates the Russian Federation’s Declaration of Sovereignty in 1990.  The event came off peacefully, with a column of 55-60,000 demonstrators marching through Moscow, but the Kremlin had acted preemptively to neutralize its effects.  Investigators called in a number of protest leaders and organizers, including well-known blogger Aleksey Navalny and media personality Kseniya Sobchak, for questioning regarding violent clashes between protestors and OMON riot police at a May 6 rally.  Police also charged and arrested a number of participants in the clashes, while the word in Moscow is that the authorities are planning to bring more serious charges of organizing mass disturbances against some of the protest leaders.

The May 6 skirmish between marchers and OMON, called “cosmonauts” because of their protective gear and visored helmets, was the first notable violence in a series of protest marches that began last December at the time of elections to the Russian legislature, the Duma, and continued during the presidential election campaign that culminated in Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin.  There was a notable drop in protest participation following the elections, but the Kremlin’s moves to tighten up the law on public meetings and the clashes on May 6 reinvigorated the protests.  Both sides accused the other of staging provocations, with radicals now playing a more prominent role in the movement, which is divided over both strategy and tactics.  Moderates, for instance, are planning to nominate candidates for a series of upcoming local and regional elections, while radicals are pushing for more marches and direct confrontation with vlast, the Russian authorities.  Separating the protest leaders from the provocateurs, who may be working for the police and/or radical elements in the opposition, is becoming increasingly difficult.  The radicals and the Kremlin both conceivably have an interest in further confrontation: The radicals, because they are frustrated with what they see as the squeamish attitude of many moderates (and many of the marchers), and the Kremlin, hoping that the urban middle class will recoil at the prospect of further violent confrontation.  Meanwhile, Western governments have pressured the Kremlin on behalf of the protestors, and Moscow, with good reason, is suspicious the West would support a “Russian spring” revolt.

The mass protests have been centered in the Russian capital, with smaller groups following suit in a number of Russian cities, but the June 12 protest was in line with the numbers seen previously—the protest movement has so far not been able to expand its “educated urbanite” base.  But the eurozone crisis and falling oil prices have made the Kremlin anxious.  Oil and natural-gas income is the foundation of the Russian state budget, and Putin has promised more pay hikes for “budget workers,” the military and police, improved housing, and higher pensions (and not to raise the pension age, although that reform could keep the pension system solvent) for an army of retirees, as well as a massive amount of spending on rearming the Russian military, ensuring the loyalty of the military and the military-industry complex.  At the same time, the government is planning a series of rate hikes for electricity, natural gas, and other utilities, which will have the biggest impact in the Russian regions, notably poorer than Moscow, and could spark wider protests.  Some protest leaders have shifted gears and are already focusing on “social” issues rather than the elections and the question of Putin’s legitimacy.  If the protests expand under a financial/budget crisis, the divisions in the elite—not all of the key “clans” believe that Putin can maintain stability and keep them safe, and some have likely supported the protest movement—could undermine Putin’s position.

Another concern of Russian elites is the international situation.  A confrontation with the West over Iran, Syria, or missile defense could hurt a major goal of many Russian elites: legitimizing themselves and their wealth in the West.  Their status is already under threat as the U.S. Congress considers visa restrictions and an asset freeze for a number of high-level officials who were involved in the Magnitsky affair.  (Sergey Magnitsky, a corporate lawyer in Moscow who uncovered a tax-fraud scheme by Russian officials, was himself charged with a crime and died in police custody.)

At this writing in late June, Russian warships are reportedly headed for a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus.  The latest dispatch of warships followed an incident involving a Russian transport ship carrying attack helicopters bound for Syria, which turned back as a British insurer removed coverage.  Coinciding with media reports that the Americans were helping to arm Syrian rebels, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that two landing ships with Russian marines were on their way to Syria, with the stated purpose of protecting Russian equipment and personnel there.

At a G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, Western leaders contradicted one another regarding Putin’s stance on the Syrian crisis: British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that Putin does not want to see Bashar Assad remain in power in Damascus, but President Obama said that Russia and China have “not signed on” to any plan for removing Assad, as Beijing and Moscow have acted to undercut further sanctions against Syria.  Syria is a major customer for Russian arms, and the naval facility at Tartus is the Russian navy’s only warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.  With the Russian presence and role in the Middle East under threat, Putin must now weigh clashing Russian elite interests against his long-term prospects for remaining in the Kremlin.