Banks and Economic Grievance in Russia

Web activity points to potential financial sector risk and a resurgent opposition movement.


This summer, protests broke out in Moscow after several candidates for city council elections were barred from running. After several weeks of demonstrations and a government crackdown, the opposition movement faded from the international spotlight. But now, anomalous web activity related to Russian banks and the possibility of unrest motivated by economic grievances could point to internal risks on the horizon for the Putin regime. 

First, patterns of unusually high online interest in Russia’s financial sector could be reflecting concerns about the health of the country’s banks. Russia’s economy has been slowing, with the central bank recently lowering its 2019 growth forecast from 1%-1.5% to 0.8%-1.3%. The government insists a recession is not forthcoming. Yet this summer, the World Bank warned that despite government bailouts for troubled lenders totaling tens of billions of dollars, Russia’s banks remained at risk of systemic failures. Online interest in Russia’s banks has been steadily rising since early September and last week hit its highest level of the year. 


Russian internet users showed particular interest in Post Bank, a large consumer bank. Importantly, Post Bank has a majority stake in Multicard, a company that provides payments processing and other banking services to dozens of Russian banks. 


At the same time, there are signs that popular economic discontent is rising. Online attention to the Russian economy is at its highest level in months. Pension reform, the issue that spurred nationwide protests last year, is again in the news: An official close to the government recently told reporters the government is considering another increase to the retirement age. That comes as a recently released poll showed a majority of Russians are unhappy with pension reform as it has been enacted. 


Further, there is speculation that the opposition movement, looking to maintain momentum after the summer’s political protests, may turn back to protesting over economic issues. Online activity related to corruption and other popular economic grievances has risen to its highest level in months.


In addition, a Predata signal that captures activity on Russian-language web pages about general subjects that motivate popular unrest is again rising after having fallen off after the Moscow election protests.