Protests have now rocked the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk for over two weeks. 

Since July 11 tens of thousands have poured out onto the streets, angry at what has been seen as the politically motivated arrest of popular but controversial local governor, Sergei Furgal. Government efforts to calm the unrest have so far failed. 

The protests are a reminder that things are not so rosy for President Vladimir Putin.

Despite this month’s orchestrated vote on constitutional amendments that would allow him to rule for a further two terms, the regime’s identity has deteriorated and is more fragile than ever.

Indeed, an increasingly active civil society, an anxious but powerful elite, and a stagnating economy battered by Covid-19 means that should Mr Putin want to rule until 2036, they will be the hardest years of his presidency.

First there are the voters. For all the thuggery and kleptocracy of Mr Putin’s rule, his legitimacy remains tied to the idea of public support. 

His popularity is a mix of genuine loyalty and apathy, with roots in the early 2000s oil boom which lifted millions out of poverty. 

It was the beginning of a social contract that provided economic growth and stability, but in return demanded the population turn a blind eye to the de-politicisation of public life. 

Voting became an act of theatre, the Kremlin deploying ‘government resources’ – propaganda, coercion, manipulation – to make sure Mr Putin’s validity could not be questioned.

As growth stalled a new conservative narrative emerged which continues to dominated politics today.

In it, the Kremlin portrays Mr Putin as the only capable defender of a Russia besieged by internal and external enemies.

The success of this narrative is waning. Most Russians care about schools, roads and hospitals. Others about the environment, internet freedoms and pensions. 

They want someone to tackle poor infrastructure, rising utility bills and unchecked corruption.

These issues have spawned protests across the country. Some have remained local and apolitical. Others have become about power and accountability. 

Either way the increase in protests point to rising if not disparate civic activism amongst parts of the population the Kremlin needs to keep onside. The more these grievances are seen as consequences of Mr Putin’s rule, the harder it becomes for the president to avoid responsibility.

Next is the elite. It is not just legitimacy derived from the public that Mr Putin relies on – he also needs the support of those in power around him. 

The president’s system is dominated by a handful of political, financial and industry figures who have accumulated interests and assets they want to protect. 
When this collides with structures that prevent traditional transfers of power, you get a succession problem. Indeed, the last few years has seen infighting bubble to the surface as elites jostle to best position themselves for a potential post-Putin world

Power struggles have played out in boardrooms and across the court system. 

How do you pass on a personalised system with no checks and balances? Who do you trust?

For now Mr Putin’s response to these questions has been to bury speculation by allowing himself to rule for another two terms. This is unlikely to assuage the worries of the elite in the long term. 

There remains no clear plan for Russia’s future.

Then there is the economy. Despite often being described as close to collapse, it has shown itself to be resilient thanks to a well managed central bank and focus on macroeconomic stability. 

Years of sanction-induced isolation has helped Moscow prepare for financial shocks. But the economy remains vulnerable and has long suffered from stagnation –a result of the political decision to prioritise control over growth.

Covid-19 has exacerbated these concerns, plunging the economy into deep recession. While the government has rolled out a stimulus package the response has been slow, and the worry is it won’t be enough. 

Russia’s business ombudsman reported in May that 60 per cent of companies may struggle to survive. The economy could contract by as much as six percent this year.
To make matters worse, the pandemic has come on the back of a price crash and drop in demand for oil, Russia’s main export earner. 

It may take years for consumption to rebound. 

Any recovery will be complicated by market shifts towards decarbonisation and cheaper renewables. 

The Kremlin will likely find itself relying more on China but increased dependency will bring risks. 

To properly future-proof its economy Moscow will need to not only welcome innovation and diversification but also a fundamental restructure of a system long resistant to change.