By Andrew Rettman
The Russian regime got a bloody nose in local elections last weekend. At the same time, Russia exchanged prisoners with Ukraine and agreed to hold peace talks.
But what does it all mean?
Is Russian president Vladimir Putin losing his grip on power and having second thoughts about waging war in Europe?
Should the West help the opposition to topple him? Or should it try to make new deals with the Kremlin, as French president Emmanuel Macron is keen to do?
“United Russia’s campaign across the country was very, very successful,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after local elections last Sunday (8 September).
Putin’s political party held on to its majority in most big cities and all 16 of his governor candidates won their posts, he added.
But its majority in the Moscow city council plunged from 38 to 25 out of 40.
It did even worse in other parts of Russia, such as Khabarovsk and Irkutsk, and it lost half its support in Russia-occupied Crimea in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the party’s “success” relied on banning real opposition candidates from running.
It also fielded what the opposition calls “pocket candidates” – United Russia politicians who hid their true affiliation.
And the election came after the biggest anti-regime demonstrations in Moscow in a decade, with up to 50,000 people on the streets.
“The vote in the country was a protest and the authorities had to resort to fraud in order not to lose their majority,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch who lives in London and who works with Russian opposition movements, told EUobserver.
United Russia’s popularity has “tumbled” because Putin forced it to endorse a hike in the pension age to offset economic problems, Nikolai Petrov, a researcher at the Chatham House think-tank in London, added.
“There’s a change happening [in Russia] and leaders are not immortal,” Judy Dempsey, an expert at Carnegie Europe, a transatlantic think-tank, also said.
Putin’s wars in Ukraine and Syria were expensive, while ordinary Russian people were being “dumped on”, and anger over simple things, such as uncollected garbage, was boiling over, she added.
“The good news is that it [anti-regime feeling] is not just Moscow-centric. It’s happening all over the country … civil society is taking root,” Dempsey said.
Putin, also last weekend, exchanged 35 prisoners with Ukraine.
The move raised hopes of a wider breakthrough on the five-year old conflict
“To return Ukrainian sailors and political prisoners back home from illegal Russian imprisonment was very long-awaited for the whole country,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Mykola Tochytskyi, told EUobserver.
Putin’s move even saw France talk of ending EU sanctions on Russia if there was a peace deal at an upcoming summit.
“We are seeing a new state of mind … which we are pleased about,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said after going to Moscow last Monday.
The situation on the domestic front might get worse before it gets better, however.
The usefulness of United Russia as a “political technology” was running out and “the authorities are having to move from propaganda to repression,” Khodorkovsky noted.
As if to illustrate his point, a few days after Peskov’s statement, police goons raided the homes and offices of supporters of Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition figure, in more than 40 cities.
The security forces will “inevitably make mistakes” and Putin will take the blame for these, Khodorkovsky added.
But the opposition remained “split” and there was no “serious pressure” on the regime at this stage, he also said.
Khodorkovsky urged “respected people” in the West to give moral support by speaking out against violence.
Dempsey, from Carnegie Europe, said the EU could also help reformers to use the internet more effectively.
But “any change will have to come from inside” Russia, she noted.
“There can be some optimism around the future of Russian politics … but it’s really too early now to speak about serious partners for the West among a very diversified and fluid Russian opposition,” Chatham House’s Petrov said.
At the same time, the repressive turn poses questions on France’s diagnosis of Putin’s “state of mind”.
The French overtures also make mockery of Khodorkovsky’s appeal to “respected people” in the West.
For his part, Tochytskyi, the Ukrainian ambassador, warned against reading too much into the prisoner swap deal.
Russia still holds “dozens” of Ukrainian political prisoners and fires on Ukrainian soldiers “every day” on the contact line, he noted.
And the diplomat urged the EU to “remain resolute and consistent in its adherence to sanctions … until the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is fully restored”.
With the UK distracted by Brexit and with the German chancellor on her way out of office, French leader Macron has become Europe’s spokesman on the world stage.
“Macron is now the number one foreign policy thinker and mover in Europe … there’s no bravura, it’s very serious”, Dempsey said.
But for some experts, such as James Nixey from Chatham House, the 41-year old French leader still had “a lot to learn”.
Macron will “get nothing” from his Russia summit because Putin “wants something so fundamentally – legally, morally – different [to what the EU stands for] that it cannot be granted”, Nixey said.
“Most Western leaders come into power believing their predecessors were incompetent and only someone truly capable such as themselves can succeed in this task,” Nixey added.
“Macron will fail because – as he will come to realise – Russia has no interest in being ‘brought round’. It’s just not that kind of regime,” Nixey said.