Saturday, May 15

Russians Are Angry, but Putin’s Foes Struggle to Seize the Moment

MOSCOW — This should be the moment for Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most visible opposition leader.

Many Russians are enraged with the Kremlin over its botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. President Vladimir V. Putin’s approval rating, at 59 percent, is at its lowest ebb since 1999, when he was a lowly prime minister.

At the same time, Mr. Navalny’s audience for his YouTube livestreaming channel tripled as the virus took hold. But whether Mr. Navalny can capitalize on the opportunity remains to be seen.

As Russia fights the coronavirus, the country’s beleaguered opposition, too, finds itself on the back foot. Its proven approach to effecting change — mass street protest — will not be viable for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Navalny and his colleagues are left working from home, pumping out video clips, petitions and social media posts to try to channel the anger of Russians wondering why Mr. Putin has not done more to help them during the biggest domestic crisis of his tenure.

“This is the most important thing happening in people’s lives,” Mr. Navalny said, referring to the authorities’ virus-related measures. “In every Moscow apartment, in every Russian apartment, even if they never talked about politics before, they’re talking about this.”

The discontent may be hidden behind apartment walls, but it is increasingly palpable. Anastasia Nikolskaya, a psychologist at Kosygin State University in Moscow, worked with a team to conduct 235 telephone interviews with a cross-section of Russians in May. She said she encountered far more, and far more intense, invective toward the Kremlin than in focus groups she had conducted in years past.

“We are entering a rather acute phase of public discontent,” said Mikhail Dmitriev, an economist and public-opinion expert who reviewed Ms. Nikolskaya’s findings. “If the level of aggressiveness in society remains this high, it will influence people’s political behavior after the quarantine measures are removed.”

Mr. Navalny, a 43-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption activist, has needled Mr. Putin as corrupt and incompetent for more than a decade, dubbing him the head of “a party of crooks and thieves.” He maintains a nationwide network of branch offices and has honed a punchy, populist and sometimes nationalist rhetoric that reaches millions of social-media followers well beyond the urban middle class.

Along the way he has spent stints in jail and under house arrest, and the authorities have raided his offices and frozen his bank accounts. But the Kremlin has continued to let him operate, perhaps fearing that tougher action would only raise his popularity and standing.

Mr. Dmitriev says the coronavirus crisis is a singular moment in Russia’s political history, because the lockdown gave people lots of free time to stew over their sudden economic dislocation.

“You get the feeling that Putin always got lucky, and now he’s unlucky, and things aren’t going according to the Kremlin’s plan,” said Ivan Zhdanov, who heads Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “There is a window of opportunity opening up.”

Mr. Navalny says the Kremlin is losing the support of Russians who had backed Mr. Putin as their guarantor of order and stability. In confrontations over Ukraine and Syria, Mr. Putin cut the figure of a tough, determined leader.

“Just like that, the emperor turned out to have no clothes,” Mr. Navalny said. “Those who sought and hoped for some kind of order saw totally colossal chaos, a lack of help and utter craziness.”

But Mr. Navalny says his most powerful message is an economic one: the idea that for all of Russia’s natural-resource wealth, Mr. Putin is continuing to pad the pockets of those close to him while failing to support the millions of self-employed Russians and service workers who have seen their incomes dry up.

Elena Lerman, a 34-year-old makeup artist in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, said she and her friends in the beauty industry watched each of Mr. Putin’s addresses to the nation in March and April, hoping in vain to hear about relief measures that might compensate them for their shuttered studios and salons.

“It was utter disillusionment,” Ms. Lerman said in a telephone interview. “It confirmed that regular people can only depend on themselves and on those close to them.”

Ms. Lerman tried to make ends meet by offering makeup lessons online. Eventually, she joined her colleagues in quietly returning to work, despite the lockdown.

“It was either die of the coronavirus or die of hunger,” she said.

Ms. Lerman said she now followed politics more closely than she used to and could imagine taking part in protests in the future. But she said she was skeptical of Mr. Navalny, explaining, “I no longer understand who tells the truth.”

Shedding light on Mr. Navalny’s far-from-universal appeal, the YouTube statistics provided by his team show that 76 percent of his April viewers were men, and more than half were between the ages of 25 and 44. Harnessing the anger of people like Ms. Lerman will be the biggest task for Mr. Navalny and other activists in the months to come.

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