Will protests break out in Russia over the economic crisis?

Russia's economic crisis continues to deepen. Yet on the surface, it would appear that Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings remain high, and Russia's citizens are determined to stand behind their strongman. But is there more to it?

I wrote last month that Putin's approval ratings will not remain high indefinitely as Russia's economy plunges into a recession. So far, the economy is only getting worse. Indeed, Russia's former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, warned on Dec. 22 in Moscow that Russia is facing an economic crisis. "Today I can say that we have entered or are currently entering a full-blown economic crisis; next year we will feel it in full force," he said. As the crisis deepens, Putin is expanding the military budget, rather than investing in education and infrastructure. Russia's own current finance minister, Anton Siluanov, publically complained about this.

Russia's ruble continues to plummet. Financial experts now say the Russian ruble has been among the year's worst-performing currencies. On Dec. 26, 54 rubles traded against the dollar. Compare this to last year, when the nominal exchange rate, according to Russia's Central Bank, remained between approximately 31 to 33 rubles to the dollar throughout the year.

Russia is also facing high inflation. While some experts predict inflation may move into the double digits in 2015, as I wrote last month in The Hill, it may already be there in certain select and critical sectors of the economy. Inflation is a particularly sore point for many Russians, especially those who lived through the turbulent years of hyperinflation in the 1990s. For many, fear of inflation is both real and psychological.

Yet Putin's approval ratings so far remain high. As a recent Levada Center poll showed, Putin's approval rate stood at 85 percent in December, despite the currency crisis. This is roughly the same rate as in November, before the currency crisis ensued, though still slightly lower than the 87 to 88 percent approval ratings recorded in earlier months, closer to the start of the Ukrainian crisis.

Consider another December poll, however, by Kudrin's Committee of Civil Initiatives, which found that, as reported by Russia's Moskovsky Komsomolets, "perceptions of President Vladimir Putin are changing — the country's residents still do not see an alternative to him, but subconsciously trust in him decreases." This does not contradict the Levada poll, but rather supplements it with a deeper analysis of what "approval" for Putin entails in Russia. In addition, if in the beginning of the year, Russian citizens associated Putin with a powerful animal such as a lion or a bear, they now, according to the study, associate him with those of less stature, such a wolf, a lynx or a hare.

The study also finds that the majority of Russians continue to primarily trust the Russian television when it comes to sources of information, and that is where the Kremlin exerts the most control. Yet the negative trends in the economy force many to search for alternative sources of information, such as the Internet and social networks, where it is possible to find views opposing the Kremlin.

The study's authors predict another wave of protests in Russia, this time because of economic troubles rather than political discontent, as was the case in 2011 and 2012.

There are no guarantees that if they happen, these protests will necessarily bring about democratization — indeed, Russia has seen a rise of nationalism and xenophobia in recent years, while Putin has successfully convinced many Russians that the West is to blame for their problems. But this study shows that Russian citizens will not stand for an economic crisis forever, nor a leader who presides over it.

Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter @annaborsh.

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