Russians See Weekend Rally as Litmus Test

Putin’s critics hope to turn an annual gathering for Boris Nemtsov into a protest against changes to the constitution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the G-8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 18, 2013.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the G-8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 18, 2013. Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images

MOSCOW—Russians critical of President Vladimir Putin plan to gather in Moscow this weekend in a protest that could indicate just how much opposition there is to proposed changes to the constitution that would allow Putin to continue wielding power long after his term runs out in 2024.

The gathering Saturday will mark five years since the assassination of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, an annual event that is permitted by authorities. 

But Russia’s most prominent opposition leaders have called for mass turnout that would send a signal regarding the proposals Putin unveiled in January.

“The Kremlin is going to look at how many people attend the Nemtsov march,” Alexey Navalny, a leading opposition figure who has investigated high-level corruption for years, wrote on Twitter. “This will influence how brazenly they will pursue the operation to keep Putin in power. This will influence the future of political prisoners.”

The call was echoed by other opposition politicians, including Ilya Yashin, who referenced both Nemtsov and Putin’s attempted power grab in his tweet.

Nemtsov, who had been working on a report examining Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine, was gunned down on Feb. 27, 2015, as he strolled with his girlfriend along a bridge not far from the Kremlin. He was a liberal politician who served as a deputy prime minister during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency and became one of Putin’s most prominent opponents.

In channeling Nemtsov, Russia’s fragmented opposition is hoping to show that the spirit of resistance is alive and well. The demonstration is expected to be the first major street action by the opposition since a series of protests in Moscow last summer over local elections, which were dispersed by security forces.

“One of the functions of the march is a head count: showing that the people are still here,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political analyst. “Opposition-minded people need to gather and see each other to remind each other and the country that they exist.”

Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of Nemstov’s killing, which stunned Russia and sent a chill through the country’s civil society. The annual gathering is meant to reflect on Nemtsov’s political career and legacy and to call for a renewed investigation into his assassination.

In 2017, five men from Chechnya were sentenced to prison for Nemtsov’s murder, but relatives and government critics suspect that the killing could have been ordered by the Kremlin. Last week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a report calling on Moscow to launch a new investigation, saying that the Russian authorities failed to determine who ordered the killing.

The annual rally has also provided a means for the opposition to piggyback other political causes and to plant a flag for upcoming events in the country’s political calendar, such as regional elections slated for later this year and parliamentary elections in 2021.

But coalescing around proposed changes to the constitution has so far proved elusive. A January opinion poll from the Levada Center, an independent pollster based in Moscow, found that 47 percent of Russians believed Putin was using the referendum to expand his authorities and remain in power, and a poll released Friday found that only 25 percent of respondents would support the amendments. Still, there has been no pronounced backlash since the announcement last month. Putin has since set up a working group of 75 doctors, politicians, musicians, actors, film directors, business people, sports figures, and others to put forward amendments. The Kremlin announced on Wednesday that a nationwide vote will be held on April 22, where Russians will have their say on the proposed changes to their country’s constitution. 

“There’s not much to be angry about, and there is not much to be enthusiastic about,” Schulmann said. “The vote will happen anyways, but the organizers need to show a properly high voter turnout to make it look legitimate.” 

The key changes to the constitution revolve around creating a powerful position for Putin after he leaves the presidency in 2024. Some proposals have looked at granting retired presidents immunity from prosecution, while others would make Putin a lifetime senator in Russia’s upper house.

The most likely scenario involves the Russian leader heading a reconfigured State Council, a body with new powers that would allow him to continue navigating Russian foreign and military policy and ensure that his vision of the country remains intact.

Russians will be asked to vote yes or no on the full text of the new constitution. In order to try to attract voters and avoid embarrassingly low turnout, or defeat, the authorities have added two amendments that hold broad appeal. One would set the minimum wage above the poverty line, and another would enshrine pensions. Both measures already exist under Russian law. 

“Pensions, salaries, and social benefits are the main things that people care about,” said Denis Volkov, the Levada Center’s deputy director. “The conditions are not bad enough for people to join a movement or go to the streets like what we saw in 2011 and 2012” during mass protests against Putin’s return to the presidency after he served four years as prime minister.

The April vote highlights the current impasse in the country. While Putin still remains popular, his government has faced falling ratings and rising distrust that could grow as he serves out his term until 2024. The dismissal of the unpopular government in January and the appointment of Mikhail Mishustin as prime minister, who has since promised increased social benefits, were seen as moves to boost Putin’s popularity. Underscoring the contradictions at play, a January poll found that Putin’s approval rating stood at 68 percent but trust in the president was down to 35 percent, the lowest since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“The situation is still manageable, but it is becoming more difficult [for Putin],” Volkov said. “They are trying to stop the dent to Putin’s public appeal.”

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Russians have few incentives to mobilize en masse against the proposed measures despite growing fatigue among the population.

“It doesn’t mean that political opposition is disappearing or that civil society is gone,” Kolesnikov said. “It’s more just that people don’t see how they could change anything.”

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan