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Is Russia’s protest movement a flash in the pan?

Putin is back in power and the numbers of Russians actively protesting against the regime have dwindled. Six months on, what has the protest movement achieved and does it have a future? Dmitry Travin points to huge differences of opinion in different areas of the country and among different strata of society, and concludes it all depends on the economy.

Exactly half a year has passed since Russia’s parliamentary elections.  Immediately after they took place, there were rallies and demonstrations across the country. To begin with, people were calling for fair elections. Then, as their frustration grew, they started to demand that Vladimir Putin himself resign.  At the time, many thought a fundamental change had taken place – that Russia had turned into a responsible society, intent on making its voice heard; a society which voiced its discontent, and inclined towards democracy. So how do things stand today, now that Putin has nevertheless become President once again, and has appointed a government led by Dmitry Medvedev? 

The demonstrations have subsided; Putin’s popularity has grown; no reforms have taken place.

First, the demonstrations are on a far smaller scale now than when at their peak last winter.

True, the level of protest activity is unlikely to drop to what it was a year or two ago, when only the most committed activists met once a month on Moscow’s Triumph Square, within the framework of the so-called “Strategy 31”, to rail against the Putin regime. 

Putin_Nizhny_Tagil

Vladimir Putin followed through his election promise and visited the huge Uralvagonzavod plant in Nizhny Tagil immediately after his presidential inauguration. But will the Russia's oil and gas income be enough to keep the protest movement under control? (photo: www.kremlin.ru)

However, in the near future, the leadership of the protest movement looks likely to revert to a few passionate individuals who are prepared to pay the large fines prescribed by new Russian legislation for organizing meetings, as well as to do regular stints behind bars.  Instead of the veteran warriors, the writer Eduard Limonov and the human rights activist Ludmila Alekseeva, the younger generation will take centre stage – Aleksei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov, and Ilya Yashin.  They will continue to prove their dedication to the cause, but it is unlikely that this will result in any serious political change.

Second, Putin’s popularity has grown, at least according to the Public Opinion Foundation.

Support for Putin is certainly not as great as it was before the 2008 crisis.  However, although the period of economic difficulty resulted in a serious loss of support for Putin, when the sudden wave of mass demonstrations in Moscow and St Petersburg took place, he began to regain favour.  There are three reasons for this:  an adverse reaction to the protest movement from part of the population; the effects of the extensive pro-Putin pre-(Presidential) election propaganda machine; and an increase in people’s incomes in real terms as a result of the large amounts of state spending in the last few months. 

‘Support for Putin is certainly not as great as it was before the 2008 crisis.  However, although the period of economic difficulty resulted in a serious loss of support for Putin, when the sudden wave of mass demonstrations in Moscow and St Petersburg took place, he began to regain favour.’

Third, the Putin-Medvedev reform which people in Russia talk about as the main achievement of the protest movement, so far looks distinctly like a con.

It entails a return to the system of elected regional governors, which was changed back in 2004. However, according to the new legislation, only candidates with the support of 5-10 % of municipal deputies, will be able to stand. Considering municipal councils in Russia are by and large dominated by those who openly support the regime, it is hard to see how genuine opposition candidates will stand any chance of becoming governors. In short, elections which entail such a skewed selection process are not true elections.

Something similar may happen in relation to the liberalisation of the system of registering political parties. Formally, registration will henceforth be easier. But it is not just registration that is important. What matters is whether parties will be given the chance to function properly and fight for votes. The expectation is that the Ministry of Justice will indeed register opposition parties, but that the Kremlin, helped by people who have informal influence, will make it difficult for them to raise money, access air space, and organise meetings, so that the uneducated voter from the provinces will believe any dirty lies which are spun about the opposition, such as that it is funded by the US State Department or by the hugely unpopular political emigrant, Boris Berezovsky.

Who really has had enough of the regime?

So what has the protest movement in fact achieved in the last six months?  Was freedom just a brief flight of fancy for Russia or has there really been a shift in attitudes? To answer this question, it is important to dispel the belief held by many intellectuals in Russia, that the local environment is indicative of the country as a whole.

‘Very often, politicians, writers and journalists judge the state of affairs in Russia by the dominant mood in their immediate vicinity. If they see a thousand people who are unhappy with the regime in Moscow, they conclude that the whole country is about to take to the streets.’

Very often, politicians, writers and journalists judge the state of affairs in Russia by the dominant mood in their immediate vicinity. If they see a thousand people who are unhappy with the regime in Moscow, they conclude that the whole country is about to take to the streets. Or rather, they are not so naive as to fail to see that Siberia or the Volga region differ from Moscow and St Petersburg, but they conclude simplistically that if there are protests in Moscow today, then by tomorrow or the day after, they will have spread to every other region.

This is not the case, in fact. The motivation of people on good salaries, who keep abreast of current affairs and often go abroad, is very different from that of those living in poverty in the provinces, whose sole interests are beer, football and the opportunity to buy cheap consumer goods. 

It’s the economy, stupid.

Last autumn, a terrible sense of yearning took hold among those in Moscow and St. Petersburg who want Russia to become more like a European country. People were affronted by the blatant cynicism with which the Kremlin handled the switch of Putin to President and Medvedev to Prime Minister. When the demonstrations started, these people felt as though life suddenly had meaning, that there was something worth talking about, and hope that Russia’s future might not be as grey and depressing as the present.  

The mood among those in the cities whose values are beer, football and a growing need to consume, was very different. To these people, life under Putin has not been grey and depressing. Far from it. Higher incomes have meant they can have a good time, afford their own car and imported household gadgets, improve their homes, and go to resorts. Regardless of how many people demonstrate in Moscow and Petersburg, there will always be many more sitting in front of the TV drinking beer.

In December, some Russian analysts naively predicted that after the elections, the protests would slowly spread across the country, and end up incorporating the majority of Russia’s citizens. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, and those who foresee such a scenario are judging by what is going on around them, and fail to understand how different the lives and motivation are of people in other parts of the country, from different social strata, different professional backgrounds etc..

It is not simply that the intellectuals in Moscow and St Petersburg fail to understand this, however. Over the last half year, their lives have become so much brighter and more interesting, that they have begun to convince themselves of impending changes. But life in provincial Russia is no brighter. There, teachers, workers in weapons factories, policemen, officers, and pensioners understand that their lives will only become more comfortable when Putin redistributes the oil dollars and puts them into arms, the army, the legal system, schools and pensions.

‘Only if the level of consumption falls might the protest movement grow to encompass the broadest section of the population.’

Only if the level of consumption falls under the Putin regime might the protest movement grow to encompass the broadest section of the population. So when it comes down to it, Russia’s fortunes depend on the scale of the economic crisis which is engulfing Europe. To support the state-run sectors of the economy such as the military-industrial complex, the army, the police, education, and even culture, the Kremlin needs income from high oil prices. Without it, Putin will be unable to maintain high ratings in the polls. Depending on what happens to the economy, the protest movement in Russia will either gather widespread support, or, on the contrary, pale into insignificance.


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