Why Russian grievances with Putin haven't loosened his grip on power

Vladimir Milov, a former rising star on Vladimir Putin's team who became an opposition activist, sits down with CBC News to preview his old boss's new six-year term and to discuss what it will take to unseat him one day.

Opposition activist talks about the dangers of Putin's new term and the challenges of trying to end his reign

Opposition activist Vladimir Milov was once a staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now he's part of the movement trying to end his rule. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

As a 30-year-old rising star in Vladimir Putin's new government, Vladimir Milov saw a world of economic possibilities open up for his country when he visited the foothills of Alberta's Rockies in 2002.

Kananaskis was hosting the G8 Summit, the annual gathering of the world's most powerful economies, and with Russia shaking off its post-Soviet chaos, it was the first time the country was invited to attend as a full-fledged member.

Milov, a member of the Russian delegation, had just been appointed deputy minister of energy, an extremely senior position for someone so young.

Happier Times: Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair share a laugh during an official photo ceremony in front of the Rocky Mountains at the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alta., on June 26, 2002. (AFP/Getty Images)

"I personally remember the enthusiasm that greeted us there," he recalled. "People from the biggest developed countries were greeting us, saying, 'Welcome in.'"

CNN described the event as a personal victory for Putin, who was enjoying "a warm relationship" with Western leaders.

Distant memory

But 16 years later, that short-lived courtship is a distant memory, replaced by a renewed standoff between Russia and the West that's reminiscent of the Cold War.

As for Milov, now 46, he became dismayed with Putin's moves away from democracy and joined the political opposition trying to unseat him. He's one of the top advisers to anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, whose Progress Party has organized mass anti-Putin rallies across Russia.

Milov spoke to CBC News in Moscow to discuss what Putin's new six-year term, which officially begins May 7, might hold for his country's relationship with the West, and the uphill battle facing Russia's political opposition.

Milov says he believes Russians are growing increasingly frustrated with Putin's rule, even if it hasn't been expressed at the polls. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

On the first issue, he isn't optimistic.

"There is no prospect of improving relations with the civilized world for years to come if Putin stays in power," he said.

"I saw step by step [that] it was Putin's actions that put cracks in the pavement of our relationships with the United States and European Union."

Milov says the biggest problem was Putin's "fixation on total dominance over the post-Soviet neighbourhood."

"Primarily Ukraine," he said, "because it's the crown jewel."

Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 is viewed by most countries as illegal, and Russia continues to support separatist militants in Eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people.

A woman cries as she stands near a multi-storey block of flats damaged by separatist shelling in Yenakieve, Ukraine, back in February 2015. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Already since Putin's re-election in March, Russia has had to deal with the repercussions from the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K., including Western diplomatic and economic sanctions, and further condemnation for its continued support of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, which is widely suspected of attacking its people with chemical weapons.

Milov says he believes Russians are increasingly unhappy with the toll of their country's growing political and economic isolation from the West.

But the big question, he says, is whether Russian society "wakes up" and "engages in a major scale."

"This situation cannot linger. It will explode at some point," he said. "That is why I do not believe Putin can maintain his grip on power forever. And that's why I believe the actions of people who disagree can make a difference."

However, aside from the protests organized by Navalny's campaigners, there are few signs of mass political mobilization against the Russian leader.

Powerful messaging

A major obstacle, Milov says, is television.

State TV continually uses the language of the Cold War to present Putin's regime as the victim of an aggressive "Russophobic" campaign mounted by the West. The U.S. and its allies are afraid of Russia's growing strength, the narrative goes, and so they do everything possible to hold Russia back.

And Putin's liberal opponents have limited means to counter that powerful messaging.

"[Russians] are brainwashed by propaganda every day," Milov said.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a protest in Moscow last May. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Denis Volkov, a Russian political scientist and pollster with the independent Levada Centre in Moscow, says state TV programs reach up to 40 per cent of the Russian population every day, while the audience for Navalny's YouTube videos and other independent outlets is minuscule — just two per cent.

"It's very hard to get through this filter," he said. "If you have no access to TV, you have very few possibilities to reach out to people."

Putin's opponents are also politically divided.

Left-wing parties had little impact in the last election, garnering just three per cent of the vote. Milov's candidate, Alexei Navalny, was banned from running by the Kremlin and instead encouraged his supporters to stay home.

But the use of such tactics by Putin doesn't mean his popularity is an illusion, Volkov says.

"After [the takeover of] Crimea, Putin's ratings went up," the pollster said. "They are still rather high because it was seen as a revival of Russia as a great power and it gave Putin legitimacy."

Putin's weakness

Nonetheless, Milov says there are signs Putin's popularity is softer than what pollsters claim.

"It is a fairy tale that everyone loves and embraces Putin and we are like one nation," he said, pointing to the angry public reaction to the deadly fire at a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo last month as an example of that weakness. 

A short circuit caused the blaze that killed 60 people, including 41 children, many of whom died after they were trapped inside a burning movie theatre. Investigators admitted the alarms and other warning systems didn't work, that inspections hadn't been done in two years and that the firefighters who responded were ill-equipped to handle a mass evacuation.

Igor Vostrikov, centre, who lost his three daughters, wife and sister in the mall fire in Kemerovo speaks into a microphone during a gathering to honour the victims. (Sergei Gavrilenko/Associated Press)

Thousands of people packed the city's main square in the days that followed, protesting what they called a culture of bribery and insider favours that failed to ensure basic safety procedures were followed.

"Corruption is a very big gap between the government and the people," said Milov.

Solid grip

Political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov came to a similar conclusion in a recent article published by the Moscow-based Carnegie Institute.

"Putin's increasing aloofness from the everyday concerns of average people represents his greatest vulnerability," he wrote.

But he disagrees with Milov on how primed Russian society is to turn its back on the president.

"I respect Vladimir [Milov], he's a friend of mine," Kolesnikov told CBC News in an email. "But there are no signs of political involvement, en masse."

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.