Fighting back, in the back of beyond

Across Russia, active citizens are fighting for their neighbourhoods, livelihoods and against systemic corruption. The moment when these agendas meet will be an important one.

Mikhail Kaluzhsky Thomas Rowley
18 April 2017

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April 2017. Truck drivers protest on the central square of Novosibirsk. (c) Kirill Kanin/Tayga.info

Judging by the press, protests are back in Russia, and they are more diverse than ever before. "New people" have come out onto the street, or, at least, Russian society has recognised these unfamiliar protesters. The "sudden" eruption of people, a prominent section of them young or previously uninvolved in traditional activism, onto Moscow streets on 26 March provoked discussions of new political subjects and the start of a new protest cycle. Sections of the western press reported this as a surprising resurgence of the Russian opposition. "Russia's opposition, often written off by critics as a small and irrelevant coterie of privileged urbanites, put on an impressive nationwide show of strength Sunday with dozens of protest across the vast country," wrote the Associated Press for the New York Times.

The next day saw Russia’s long-distance truck drivers start a nationwide strike in protest against the ill-famed Platon system, which collects an additional road tax from the country’s truckers. And the media in both Russia and the west noticed it. But the "sudden" nature of this protest wave, the talk of Alexei Navalny’s growing support and the generalisation of a common protest agenda across Russia reflects the media’s myopia and exposes the hierarchies of what counts as "real protest" or, indeed, "protest that deserves coverage"

It’s worth noting that the current anti-corruption wave is preceded by and overlaps with regional agendas across Russia. The idea that you can unite protest agendas between, say, Moscow and Vladivostok (as was implicit in this Guardian article), or even St Petersburg, is misleading. Many Russian cities have their own networks of active citizens who organise around local issues, such as infrastructure projects, public services or invasive property development, and these agendas predate the federal-level anti-corruption protest. Here, people display fierce attachments to their hometowns and what goes on in them but are often (though not always) less forthcoming when it comes to abuses of power or poor services in nearby cities that are, by local standards, their neighbours.

We say this not to question Russia’s anti-corruption protest, but to suggest that, if we are to understand what is going on, we should consider how outrage at corruption is contending and overlapping with other, localised concerns. And the one theme that cuts through Russia’s current protest cycle, the one that most likely enjoys some common ground across urban centres, concerns the role of the state — citizens want federal and municipal institutions that protect them and look out for their interests, rather than those that prey on them, the cities and neighbourhoods they are attached to.

The Siberian city of Novosibirsk, which is home to 1.6 million people, is home to several strands of civic protest — mostly recently in response to tariff hikes. In December 2016, the governor of Novosibirsk Vladimir Gorodetsky announced that the city authorities would raise utilities tariffs by 15% from July 2017. In response, an initiative group (made up of former public officials, including a vice governor) was formed to combat this move. They have conducted a number of protest actions in the city since the New Year, including bringing 300 people out into -30 frost on 24 December. At stake here, clearly, is people’s distaste for tariff hikes for services that are already expensive, and are, at best, unpleasant to use.

The initiative group’s actions have been mirrored by another movement in the city — Novosibirsk’s pensioners, who were prominent during Russia’s 2011-2012 protests. Their actions largely centre around the protection of existing benefits (and thus recognition of status), such as the planned removal of free unlimited public transport in 2011, which inspired them to protest every two weeks in the city centre. Novosibirsk pensioner groups have also protested the tariff rise. And now that regional legislators (including United Russia deputies) want to reconsider the tariff hike, it looks like protests do matter.

At the same time, city residents have also come out against plans to build a waste incinerator near a local river and several dacha complexes. For years, local ecological activists tried to clean up the river. A waste incinerator would clearly impact this idyll directly, challenging people’s sense of ownership and attachment.   

The way these different agendas overlap was seen clearly on 2 April, where, in the morning, an action was held by ecological activists, the liberal opposition party Yabloko, members of the local Communist party and dacha owners on Lenin Square (a space frequently used for protest) against the plans to construct a new waste incinerator, and, in the afternoon, people gathered in the same location in support of those arrested on 26 March.

In Omsk, another major centre of southwest Siberia, local residents are concerned with air pollution that has hung over the city in recent weeks. Omsk already enjoys a (well-earned) reputation for pollution — the city is close to metals and petrochemical factories. And since the beginning of March, a local, albeit unidentified factory is thought to be expelling ethanethiol (natural gas) and potentially other substances into the atmosphere, which are then drifting into the city. On 2 April, two groups organised to address both the chemical leak and local government’s apparent lack of response. As Natalia Yakovleva, an Omsk journalist who has written for openDemocracy in the past, writes:

"The meetings triggered by the so-called ‘chemical attack on Omsk’ were organised by two initiative groups, who for the past two weeks have been unable to agree on cooperation. One of them was organised by activists from Yabloko, in the traditional place for public events in Omsk, Theatre Square. The second was organised by a group of citizens who emphasise their negative attitudes to [political] parties and ‘politics’. The agenda for both meetings, apart from ecological themes, proposed discussion on a wide range of the city’s problems, including poor roads, poor quality of life, inaction of public officials and so on."

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26 March: 2,000 protesters come out for anti-corruption protests in central Omsk. Image still via YouTube. Some rights reserved.

The important point here is the potential for conflict or non-cooperation between local actors, and how these kinds of specific movements do not necessarily tie into support for federal-level agendas. Yakovleva finished by saying: "Navalny is nowhere near this, it’s a general civic action”.

Similar concerns dominate the big cities along the Volga. In Samara, for instance, the city’s pensioners are protesting the local authorities’ removal of unlimited free public transport and the municipality's attempt at compensation in the form of new benefits in public utilities payments (which are difficult to use). 2 April saw 4,000 people (numbers aren’t everything, but twice the number that came out on 26 March) join a public meeting organised by the local Communist Party, where people aligned with the local Liberal Democratic Party (Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s right-wing nationalist party) and a local anti-corruption group spoke to the crowd.

This is only the latest in a series of pensioner protests, and the city’s cancellation of benefits has catalysed public sentiment against governor Nikolai Merkushkin, who, as the former governor of neighboring Mordovia, is a relative "foreigner" here. In recent years, local corruption scandals, as well as the governor’s "flamboyant" behaviour, have only damaged his standing further.

But even this brief digest of recent events doesn’t do the breadth of people’s concerns justice. Check out this report by Evgenia Volunkova for Takie Dela, who asked a dozen people on 2 April why they were out on the square. Here’s Irina Olegovna, 60:

"My pension is 7,700 roubles [£110], and I had some veteran pension payments too. I worked as an educator my whole life. He [Merkushkin] took those 621 roubles [£8.80] of veteran pension. I don’t have a husband, no support. I have to work to survive, and I have a bunch of health conditions. I should approve his actions? Let him go back to his Mordovia! And he lies, lies, lies, without a conscience, that he gives us our pensions! I wrote to him for help with work, do you think he helped? He didn’t help one bit!”

As other protest participants state, this demonstration in defense of pensioner benefits in Samara actualises other concerns around the region’s leadership. These largely revolve around the disconnect between the top and the bottom, such as the amount of money spent on the city’s stadium for the 2018 football World Cup or the lavish Moscow houses built for the governor’s clan (as exposed by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2016). Earlier this week, the Kremlin leaked a rumour about Merkushkin’s possible retirement: locals don’t trust him, and, for the Kremlin, this spells bad news for voter turnout at the upcoming presidential elections in 2018.

Further up the Volga, in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan is talking about the collapse of Tatfondbank, Russia’s 42nd largest bank, which has not only led to criminal cases against senior executives, but also the resignation of the republic’s prime minister, who also served as chairman of the bank’s board of directors. The suspected fraud inside Tatfondbank, which has resulted in its banking license being removed, has left shareholders and account holders in the lurch, and since late December, a union of creditors has been trying to put pressure on republic authorities and the bank to get their money back.

They have conducted a steady stream of meetings and protests, including, for example, a public protest on 18 March, which also brought out people fighting the construction of a new waste incinerator in Kazan and home-owners whose houses are set to be demolished due to their proximity to Gazprom’s Kazan-Yoshkar-Ola pipeline. The creditors’ leader Alexandra Yumanova summed up their demands thus:

"We’ve found ourselves left behind… We work, we don’t want anything from the state here. We have children, families, employees. And our state has just thrown us aside, it doesn’t intend to protect us".

This list of "problem cities" can be continued — whether it’s protecting the education or cultural institutions of Petersburg or fighting plans to build a new Orthodox church in Ekaterinburg — but it’s difficult to give these protests a single holistic description or be sure that city activist communities view these concerns as shared. Clearly, with Navalny building a populist platform that appeals to protectionist and anti-elite sentiments on the left, the right and the local level, it seems likely there will be some unification of protest agendas across Russia. If implemented, the Kremlin’s recent anti-social policy proposals, which suggest cutting the basic state pension, all but emergency access to state healthcare and enforce additional taxes for people unemployed or involved in the informal economy, will only add further fuel to this fire.

The Russian public’s discontent with an ineffective and predatory state has in the past been rerouted into "passive adaptation" in conditions of patriotic hysteria. And it seems that, in the current climate, the Kremlin’s political technologists will have to change the narrative dramatically if they are going to manage their way out of this one.

If Russia’s opposition is going to counter this, they will need to figure out how to incorporate, and work with, local agendas; and if the west is going to judge this “latest” wave of protest properly, it will have to work harder to understand Russian citizens’ political priorities.

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