These are trying times for Russian president Vladimir Putin. After years of grimly bearing the reports of economic stagnation and political repression, the people of Russia have taken to the streets by the thousands. While the scale of the ongoing demonstrations is still smaller than during the last bout of popular anger in 2011/2012, they are widely seen as a showdown over the fate of Russia after Putin steps down in 2024.
But for the man some have tipped to be Putin’s successor, the fall-out from the recent demonstrations could be even more seismic. Sergei Sobyanin has spent nearly 40 years climbing Russia’s political ladder, with barely a ripple in the international press. Now, as Moscow’s mayor, he finds himself at the center of an international storm, and the next few weeks will be crucial.
Since he joined the Young Communist League in the early 1980s, Sobyanin has proved himself a highly skilled operator, able to ride the current of Russian politics without being sucked into the maelstroms it whips up. He’s been close to Putin ever since 2000, when he helped him remove a prosecutor-general right at the start of his presidency. Putin and his ally Dmitry Medvedev rewarded Sobyanin by naming him chief of staff and then deputy prime minister, but the Moscow mayoralty was the juiciest prize of all.
In Russia, control of the capital has long been a stepping stone to national power. Nikita Khrushchev ran the Moscow branch of the Communist Party, the forerunner of today’s mayoralty, before being elected general secretary of the entire Soviet Union; Boris Yeltsin took the same path to become the Russian Federation’s inaugural president. Moscow’s previous mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, aspired to the presidency himself before eventually being ousted by the Kremlin, but many believe that Sobyanin has a better shot, given his ability to position himself on both sides of the political divide.
Since being appointed mayor in 2010, Sobyanin has negotiated a careful course that has oftentimes been at odds with the desires of the Kremlin. He’s spent trillions of rubles building a cleaner, greener Moscow, with a vastly improved transport system and myriad parks and cafes for young, liberal thinkers to discuss their ideas.
This middle-ground approach has proved successful. Surveys released in May 2018 show that only 11% of Muscovites have a negative view of Sobyanin. Many admire him for allowing opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny to contest the mayoral elections of 2013, and then appoint pro-democracy newspaperman Konstantin Remchukov to run his own campaign. By the standards of Russia’s ‘managed democracy’, in which dissent is only tolerated if it is weak and ineffective, Sobyanin’s concession was very much a high water-mark. It’s no wonder then that Sobyanin’s more liberal credentials have earned him the support of private Russian companies such as Lukoil or Sistema.
In the corridors of power, however, they remember the fact that Navalny nearly forced Sobyanin to a second round, a development which apparently earned a rebuke from the Kremlin. Sobyanin has strived to defend his position, but many among Russia’s siloviki, the power-brokers who have Putin’s ear, are unconvinced. Critics such as Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian parliament and a potential rival for the presidency, believe him to be a dangerous maverick who might take a more liberal path than what the establishment would tolerate.
These suspicions have only been fuelled by the recent Moscow protests. The decision to prevent dozens of opposition candidates from standing in Moscow’s city council elections, which triggered the two days of demonstrations, may have been taken by the Kremlin, but it was prompted by a desire to crack down hard on liberal parties.
Now, parts of the establishment are blaming Sobyanin for allowing the unrest to fester. As if that weren’t enough, the mayor responded to the first day of protests by suggesting that protesters be allowed to hold authorized demonstrations – a far cry from the brutal response Putin and his advisors eventually meted out.
Make or break
As the fallout continues, things could go one of two ways for Sobyanin. On the one hand, it appears that Putin is about to face the most trying period of his presidency. His approval ratings were already plummeting before the recent demonstrations, and the discontent is unlikely to be quelled by his heavy-handed response. If Putin were to stand aside, Sobyanin’s attempts to find a conciliatory route through the recent unrest may enable him to pitch himself as a more moderate, progressive alternative that could normalize relations with the West.
On the other hand, Sobyanin’s rivals have been emboldened by his recent travails. According to media reports, Volodin has been particularly vehement, blaming the mayor for the recent protests. The siloviki, meanwhile, have been whispering on social media that Sobyanin might be. After years of grumbling about Sobyanin’s cautious embrace of liberalism, Putin’s other would-be successors now have the perfect chance to stick the knife in.
With the reports of fresh demonstrations, Sobyanin faces a career-defining choice. His balancing act so far and good reputation has positioned him as the only working candidate for Russia post-2024 for many Kremlin opponents. His career, and Russia’s future direction, may hang on the decision the Moscow mayor makes in the coming days.