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Crisis on the horizon?

While feminist punk band Pussy Riot face heavy prison terms Murad Batal al-Shishani looks at Russia after Putin's re-election.

In early December 2011, while he Parliamentary elections were taking place, the misty cold streets of Moscow and other major cities in Russia witnessed growing unprecedented protests against the country's strong man, Vladimir Putin, and his party, United Russia, which dominated the seats of the lower-house at those elections. Putin, who has spent a gap of four years as prime minister, announced in 2011 that he would stand for president again in 2012, with his protégé Dmitry Medvedev as his prime minister. In 2008 Putin became prime minister after Medvedev's landslide win in the presidential election.

However, the announcement of the ex-KGB veteran inflamed the protest movement in Russia. These protests continued after Putin was re-elected in March 2012, as expected.

Putin was very popular and had dominated the political scene in Russia for the last decade, but recently his popularity has dropped sharply with unprecedented protests. He officially won 63.6% of votes in March election compared to 71.9% in 2004.

His emergence as Russia's strongman since 1999 is due to three major factors. Firstly, restoring the Russian army's ‘dignity' after it was defeated in Chechnya's first war 1994-1997. Secondly, the increase in oil prices which had very positive effects on Russian citizens' lives, and thirdly, his aim to restore ‘a strong state of Russia'.

However, the structure of Russian society has changed in the last 12 years, and the middle class has become more dominant. When Putin took power the Russian population ‘was relatively homogenous in its incomes and requirements'. The middle class made up some 15% of the population. Today it represents more than 25% of the population and nearly 40% of the workforce. Significantly, it's richer and more vocal, according to the Economist (2nd March, 2012).

This social change has played a major role in the creation of a kind of non-party socio-political opposition movement, as seen in the Arab Spring, as well as in the changing interests of the newly emerging middle class.

Most of the leaders of these movements are perceived as informal leaders. Activists such as Sergei Udaltsov and his wife Anastastia Udaltsova, the Blogger Alexei Navalny, Boris Nemtsov, Ksenia Sobchak and many others were not as successful in mobilising the masses against Putin through their formal political parties as they were with their latest protests.

It's worth noting that political forces in Russia have been weakened due to Putin's policies against the traditional political structures during his first years in the presidency (1999-2007). Instead, Putin relied on his old mates in the security services to run the state and its policies.

With the change in the social structure in Russia, the opposition movement's rejection of Putin's autocratic style of rule has grown. For instance when eight Russian firefighters died during a wildfire in southern Siberia, activists were critical of Putin's earlier decision to reform the management of the country's forests and, specifically, to get rid of 70,000 forest rangers.

With stable oil and gas prices, and the economic weakness of the main importer, the European Union, economic concerns in Russia are increasing and fuelling the opposition. Similarly with significantly increased levels of corruption.

On the other hand the Russian government is not resorting to violence with protesters, instead it's trying to demonise the opposition legally by imposing new legislation that can be used against the opposition. One new law approved by parliament recently raises fines of up to 300,000 roubles ($9,300) on those who attend unsanctioned demonstrations, and another would force NGOs that receive funding from abroad to submit to more rigorous financial checks and publicly declare themselves to be ‘foreign agents'. This would create a ‘blacklist' of websites to be blocked. Many observers expect that these laws, if used for purposes other than those for which they were made, will escalate opposition.

On the peripheral regions, the situation is no better. The popularity of Putin's policies in the North Caucasus has decreased among the Russian public. Daily reports of violence come out of the North Caucasus, in addition to human rights violations and high rates of corruption, poverty and unemployment. The local governments were widely blamed for this situation.

In addition to a brutal military campaign, Putin's policy in Chechnya, which has seen an independence movement since the collapse of the Soviet Union, was designed by security services which now controls the region. In 2004, Putin abandoned the election of heads of local governments in the republics of North Caucasus, and made them by appointment instead. This resulted a generation of leaders who are associated with him directly, and most of them from intelligence backgrounds. The most prominent example is Chechnya's pro-Russian leader, Ramadan Kadyrov.

This situation in the North Caucasus has played a major role in alienating youngsters and causing them to join the insurgency, which is getting more radical as time progresses.

The longer no steps are taken towards comprehensive reform inside the country, the more tension increases internally with violent implications in the North Caucasus.