Why aren’t Russians protesting against war crimes in Syria?

Across the world, the tragedy in Aleppo has brought thousands of protesters onto the streets. As usual, in Russia, nobody is taking a stand. Русский

Сергей Давидис
14 December 2016


The taking of Aleppo has left many questions over war crimes and human rights abuses. (с) Hassan Ammar AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Through airstrikes and military assistance to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, Russia’s armed forces bear responsibility for the mass slaughter of civilians in Syria. Russia’s military intervention in Syria has raised outrage across the world. Politicians and journalists have reacted with horror, but so have ordinary people, who took to the streets of Berlin, Istanbul, London, Paris and many other cities. Meanwhile in Russia, nobody seems too concerned. But is this really the case? If so, how can we explain Russian citizens’ seeming indifference?

The situation in Syria is of little interest to Russia’s “loyal majority”, who are ever deeper enthralled to pro-Kremlin television channels, but also to the minority who are opposition-minded. Immune to state propaganda, this minority actively and vocally opposed Russian aggression against Ukraine, but do not yet have a clear position on the military operations in Syria. So far, their criticism is solely economic — tallying up the expense of cruise missiles and comparing it to the hospitals and pensions many Russian citizens sorely need

There’s no conclusive explanation for this indifference. On the one hand, public protest activity has steadily declined across Russia in recent years. This decline is connected with ever-tighter legal restrictions on public activity, and, of course, the sense of frustration and powerlessness characteristic of any country experiencing a period of reaction. On the other, the deafening silence from the Russian opposition about military operations in Syria may have a number of different reasons.

First, the opposition-minded segment of the Russian-language internet and media mostly react to the government’s agenda, rather than generating their own. This situation is probably connected to the weakness of the opposition and the dominant position of the state and its apologists in the media. Since official news sources dedicate less airtime to Syria than they did to Ukraine, the opposition also pays less attention.

Second, the situation on Syria is far more multifaceted and ambiguous than the conflict in Ukraine, which is largely perceived as a black-and-white struggle by Russians. Most opposition activists in Russia were able to identify with people protesting on the Maidan in Kyiv, standing for democracy and Ukraine’s European choice. Crucially, the Russian regime positioned itself against these people. In contrast, it’s difficult to identify any obvious “good guys” in Syria. There’s also the fact that the war in Syria — at least as Moscow paints it — is being fought against so-called Islamic State. This is a real, vicious terrorist group whose atrocities can be easily established, not some imaginary “Russophobic junta in Kyiv”. Under these circumstances, Russian citizens are even less motivated to dig into the details of the conflict in Syria.

Thirdly, Syria is a far away country of which Russian citizens know next to nothing. In comparison to Ukraine, its language and culture are worlds away from their daily lives. Russians’ attitude to the intervention in Syria can hardly be compared to the Soviet campaigns for solidarity with faraway Palestine or Vietnam. After all, the conditions of a “pre-internet” totalitarian state are very different from today’s realities. Islamophobia is also relatively common among Russians (including the democratic opposition) and mitigates their sympathy for Syrian suffering. But it also wouldn’t do to exaggerate this bigotry; when portrayed as a struggle against tyranny, some Russians were sympathetic to the ideals of the Arab Spring. 

But even these are not exhaustive reasons for our indifference to the slaughter in Syria. Russian society is almost uniquely indifferent to the problems of distant strangers, whether in Darfur, Myanmar, Rwanda or Somalia. Ukraine is a strange kind of alter ego for us — the exception that proves the rule.

As far as the rest of the world is concerned (at least, the “third world”), there’s also a kind of national egocentrism at work in Russia. I don’t know where it springs from. It could be the historical sense that, when compared to the scale of our hardships and sacrifices, faraway problems are not that important. It could also be a kind of snobbery on the part of Russian citizens who, obsessed with overtaking the west, have little interest in problems beyond countries in the “first world”, among which we count ourselves. Perhaps we haven’t fully begun to see ourselves as members of the global world and have preserved a provincial indifference to others’ problems. It may even be an unconscious sense of historical grandeur and superiority, or simply the general unsettled nature of life in Russia, which permits little emotional strength for sympathy for other people and their problems.

Nonetheless we cannot say that Russian society (or at least the dissenters within it) hasn’t reacted at all to the war in Syria. In October 2015, an anti-war demonstration was held in Moscow in protest against new legislation permitting the deployment of Russian troops abroad. This came when the Federation Council granted this right to president Vladimir Putin, and in effect marked the start of Russia’s military intervention in Syria.

The people who participated in that demonstration warned us that any military operation carried out by Putin’s regime would inevitably lead to a huge number of civilian casualties in Syria. Especially when Russia’s leaders have demonstrated chilling disregard for the lives of their own citizens — whether in Chechnya, the Kursk submarine accident, or the hostage crises in Beslan and the Nord-Ost theatre.

While a few hundred people showed up, October’s demonstration didn’t really register on Russian society’s radar. But it did lay the foundations for further protests against military intervention in Syria, which began in earnest around that time.

As the situation in Aleppo deteriorated in November 2016, a small opposition group, the 5 December Party, called for protests against the mass murder of Syrian civilians and the destruction of their schools and hospitals by Russian and Syrian armed forces. Demonstrations were held across Russia on 20 November, in an important attempt to get the message to Russian citizens that serious war crimes were being committed in their name and at their expense.

The initiative was supported by a number of civic organisations, and received attention from the Russian press and on social media. Anti-war protests were also held in Kirov, Saratov, Stavropol, Rostov and Voronezh, albeit with little resonance. In Moscow, where you can rely on the prospect of publicity, our initiative encountered opposition from the authorities.

Not only did Moscow’s municipal authorities bar us from protesting in the city, but didn’t offer an alternative location instead — in direct violation of the law. After great persistence, the organisers of the event managed to bring the case to the courts. Yet the courts only bothered to rule on the case a fortnight after the proposed date for the protest, and not until two weeks before it (as the law mandates). Naturally, they found no legal violations in the municipality’s actions. 

Although the organisers intend to get justice at the European Court of Human Rights, it’s obvious that, in practice, holding a demonstration against the policy of the Russian state is impossible if that selfsame state doesn’t consider it possible to permit it.

This particular attempt to protest the deaths of Syrian civilians demonstrates a fact that has long been clear: the suppression of freedoms within Russia is a necessary prerequisite (and guarantee) for the regime’s brutal military adventures overseas.

Russians’ seeming indifference to war crimes in Syria is due, among other things, to their own inability to speak out publicly against them. Meanwhile, Aleppo burns.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards

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