Continuing street protests in Hong Kong and Moscow have no doubt spooked the authoritarian duo of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Moscow protests, the largest in many years, must be keeping Mr. Putin up at night, or they wouldn’t be dispersed with such unabated brutality. Yet, rather than hold a dialogue with the people, Mr. Putin has been demonstrating that he is in control, even preening for photos in a tight leather outfit with his favourite motorcycle gang.
Nonetheless, the demonstrations have become a poignant sign of Mr. Putin’s declining popularity, including among Russian elites, whose views matter in ways that other forms of public opinion do not. For two decades, the Russian elite’s rival factions have generally seen Mr. Putin as the ultimate guarantor of their interests – particularly their financial interests. But as Russia’s economy has sunk into sanctions-induced stagnation, Mr. Putin’s leadership has started to look like more of a roadblock than a guardrail. Fewer and fewer Russians still accept that “Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin,” a mantra that one heard regularly just five years ago, following the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea.