Foreign currency protests in Russia - a chance for the opposition?

Vladivostok-foreign currency.jpg

While political demonstrations are on the slide, economic protests are on the rise in Russia. Can the two be united?


Dmitry Florin
30 April 2015

The Russian opposition is a broad church. Just as radical leftists hold their own marches, so do the liberals and the nationalists. Battles rage around the lists of who speaks on stage, or whether you can use another movement's political symbols. Right now, although the situation in the country has worsened, these political protests have practically died out. Only the death of Boris Nemtsov was able to unite all these forces, and then, it seems, only for 24 hours.

But while the opposition attempts in vain to attract greater numbers, citizen protests are gathering force. Instead of devising catchy names for protest actions, negotiating with the city authorities for permission or advertising their events, Russian citizens have simply gone out and demanded their rights be respected. 

Marches of peace in a time of war

Just as the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012, the war in Ukraine has united the opposition. In September 2014, tens of thousands of people came out in the centre of Moscow to demonstrate their opposition to the annexation of Crimea and the events in Donbass.

Optimistic press releases, joyful photos against a background of banners with 'No to War in Ukraine', Ukrainian flags, peace symbols showed the Russian opposition was once again feeling confident. The March of Peace in September 2014 was the last big opposition event in Russia. 

As the Russian economy began to contract and violence continued unabated in Ukraine, several opposition movements announced they would hold a joint protest action on 1 March 2015. But even here, opposition groups made different demands: some sent invitations to a March for the Resignation of the Moscow Government, others tried to attract citizens to an Anti-Crisis March, while yet others collected people for an Anti-War March. Despite the fact that, in essence, the organisers were all dissatisfied with Kremlin policy, they were still unable to reach an agreement.

As a result, at the end of February, about a dozen people organised a March of Empty Pockets against the increase in prices and devaluation of the rouble. There were about 20 people at the protest. 

Meanwhile, the organisation of the march on 1 March 2015 presented different challenges. Boris Nemtsov's RPR-PARNAS submitted an application to the Moscow authorities to carry out Spring, an anti-Crisis March – billed as 'the largest opposition action of 2015'.

Generating publicity to the upcoming event proved to be hard work. A logo for Spring was designed, an advertising campaign was launched, including ads on Google. Calls from various famous people to take part were published in the media, and Nemtsov called on all opposition forces to unite. However, not everyone agreed.

This time, it was the name of the march that did it. Yabloko demanded that the March be termed not 'anti-crisis' but 'anti-war' and, having been refused, declared that they would hold their own action an hour before the march. Other groups refused to take part because they weren’t listed as organisers.

And so instead of the 'largest opposition action of 2015', a local meeting of RPR-PARNAS and its allies was far more likely. Moreover, the city authorities refused to permit a protest in the centre of Moscow and proposed Maryino, a suburb to the south east, instead.

Even journalists were confused as to what to do that Sunday. Instead of covering a large action at a single location, they could, at most, cover several small protests throughout Moscow. That is, if the publication had enough journalists.

Activists were also puzzled. How could one be everywhere? If you went to a protest action with one movement, you could end up offending members of another opposition group: why didn’t you attend their protest?

A tragedy outside the Kremlin's walls ended up assuaging everyone's doubts. The murder of Boris Nemtsov the day before the Spring march changed the situation, and 'everyone' came to the march in memory of Nemtsov: 50,000 people is a fairly big figure for any opposition event (inside Moscow and out). 

Yabloko still carried out its planned picket an hour before the march. 

Pocket marches

After the Nemtsov memorial march, the next widely announced opposition march was planned for 19 April in Moscow, the March for Peace and Freedom. This was supposed to be the official successor to the cancelled Spring march. 

The organiser of the event – the Committee on Protest Actions, based in the PARNAS building – announced that they had applied to the city authorities to stage an action in the centre of Moscow. The meeting point was supposed to be Trubnaya Square, 10 minutes from the Kremlin. 

As the advertising of the event began, several thousand pledged to attend on social networks. But the city authorities refused the organisers' application and proposed another location: this time some 20km from the Kremlin. 

The Moscow government's decision led to arguments among the opposition. Some proposed agreeing, others wanted to end the protest entirely, taking the refusal to allow the protest in the city centre as an insult. 

As a result, within a few days, the organisers publicly announced that there would be no march. Instead, a series of one-person pickets would take place in the city centre. 

Memorial protest

On 19 April, the 'parade of marches' reached its peak: in the centre of Moscow, at midday, two dozen people gathered with placards.

Soon, however, a group of Novorossiya supporters stopped to argue with the participants of the picket, accusing them of 'supporting the killing of Children in Donbas' and 'receiving money for protests from Americans.'

By the time scuffles broke out, the police had arrested several people, but only those who had taken part in the anti-war picket. The were released without charge half and hour later. Later, roughly 100 people headed to the site on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge where Boris Nemtsov was shot to lay flowers. About 100 people gathered there. People from the opposition made up less than half the people there. The rest were supporters of 'Novorossiya' and undercover police. 

 Police at the bridge did not allow those present to stop at the bridge, constantly moving people on from various sides continue moving further along the bridge. Although expected to become the biggest opposition event in Russia after the march in memory of Nemtsov, the protest managed to attract about 50 people in a city of 15 million.

Yabloko, a co-organiser of the 19 April March for Peace and Freedom, sent only one representative (complete with placard and party scarf). 

The protest managed to attract about 50 people in a city of 15 million

Where are the people?

While the opposition tries to encourage attendance at protests, now, it seems, protests beyond the confines of the opposition are gathering force.

One of these informal movements, which has arisen in relation to the fall in the rouble's value, has already organised dozens of protests not only in Moscow, but across Russia. After taking out mortgages to buy properties in the 2000s, home-owners are now facing impossible rates of repayment. Indeed, back then, Russian banks refused to give credit in roubles, but did allow customers to take out loans in foreign currency.

Putting their faith in the stability of the Russian economy, these people had been paying off property loans before it turned out they owed two or three times more than they owed a year ago. According to estimates, there are between 20,000-70,000 people with foreign currency mortgages in Russia.

These people are not appealing to the 'good Tsar' for help. They aren't coming to sanctioned actions with placards 'Vladimir Vladimirovich, help us!' They aren't threatening civil servants and police that 'Putin will find out what you're doing.' They are openly claiming that they have become victims of the policies of the Russian government.

In conversation, Oksana Semyonova – head of a movement of foreign currency debtors – compares what's happened to them to 'genocide', seeing her problem as a consequence of the policies of the Kremlin in Ukraine and the sanctions that ensued.

 'When you lose your living space in our country, you lose your registration [the document detailing the right to live somewhere], the possibility of getting your children into kindergartens and schools, you lose medical services, the ability to get a job, social benefits. We won’t even be able to vote because, without registration, we won't be on the electoral register and so able to elect our “fantastic” government,' says Semyonova. 

Foreign currency rebellion

The growing movement of people with foreign currency debt has carried out various protests in the last few months. Moreover, in contrast to the small pickets of the political opposition, their protests have attracted hundreds of people. And despite the fact that people had not earlier been involved in politics, or participated in opposition protests, their mood has been decisive.

On 22 March, they went out onto Red Square. Complete with children in prams, female participants donned black T-shirts with the slogan 'Slave of foreign currency mortgage' and, holding black balloons in their hands, walked around the square. A few minutes later, police came up to them and asked them to remove their t-shirts. Finding no legal basis for their request, the participants in the unsanctioned protest refused to do so: 60 people were arrested.

Protests, pickets and flash-mobs of foreign currency mortgage holders have taken place almost daily since. Setting off from work with young children, knowing they could end up in a police station, they protest against the Kremlin's economic policies. 

On 15 April, six people with foreign currency mortgages announced an indefinite hunger strike in the centre of Moscow. The next day, Vladimir Putin commented on the situation during his annual 'Direct Line' – a call-in show where Russian citizens can pose questions directly to the Russian president: 'As for foreign currency mortgages, we should help there too, but let me repeat that the approach and philosophy of that aid should be comparable to our support for people who have found themselves in a difficult situation, but who took their loans in rubles.' Currently, the government has set aside 4.5bn roubles (£58mln) to assist people who are having trouble repaying their mortgages.

Meanwhile, Elvira Naibullina, head of Russian Central Bank, stated in Washington that there were to be no further decisions on this issue aside from those already made by the government.

'The people are going hungry!'

March of the empty plates

On 22 April, a group of women with children marched past the windows of the State Duma in Moscow, banging spoons against empty plates and shouting: 'The people are going hungry!' With little reaction from the police, the column marched on freely to the Central Bank – where they threw their spoons and empty plates at the doors, telling the security guards to pass these broken plates onto their superiors.

While a bus with two dozen riot police arrived at the Central Bank's entrance, the police managed to arrest three women and three journalists at the tail-end of the column. The arrested had their passports taken away.

Clearly, however, having received no orders from their superiors and taken the passport information form those arrested, the police released the protesters. And the next day, the foreign currency brigade went out to protest again.

Professing no loyalty to the opposition or any media organisation, the movement of foreign currency debtors grows by the day. Perhaps one day the Russian opposition and the citizens who aren't afraid to go out on the streets will meet.

Standfirst: Foreign currency protesters in Vladivostok, February 2015. Courtesy of All-Russia Movement of Foreign Currency Lendees.

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