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Development of Protest Activity in Russia

AFP/Scanpix
AFP/Scanpix
This file photo taken on June 16, 2017 shows Russian jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny attending a court hearing in Moscow. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has declared his intention to run in Russia s presidential elections next year, is ineligible to be a candidate, the central electoral commission said on June 23, 2017.

It is easy to explain protests in countries like Russia.

Indeed, it is easy to find many reasons for rallies: authoritarianism, corruption, economic crisis, social inequality, and so on. Therefore, there is no need to study the reasons behind protests. My focus will instead be on some technical details.

First of all, the opposition cannot organize permanent pressure on the Kremlin. While the most recent rally took place on June 12, the one before that was on March 26. At this rate, the next one will perhaps be in September. To some extent this reflects a popular slogan that emerged in December 2011: “We will come again” (Мы придём ещё). This means that after a seemingly fruitless rally, protesters promise to take a break and then try again. In December 2011 the rallies were interrupted by the country’s traditionally lengthy New Year’s holidays; an attempt to resume the protest in February 2012 was unsuccessful. The movement that arose after the 2011 parliamentary election was neutralized by the regime. After 2012, rallies became more rare, though did not vanish entirely. One can recall protests in 2013, when Alexei Navalny ran for Moscow mayor, or against Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Nonetheless, these “breaks” have destroyed the possibility of any positive outcome from emerging after each rally. In sum, if protests are rare, discrete, and relatively short in duration, they cannot succeed.

Second, it seems that the regime has developed efficient measures that enable it to manage street protests. In March 2007, a “Dissenters’ March” took place in St. Petersburg. Approximately 5000 protesters smashed through militsiya and OMON special police lines and marched down Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main street. A decade later, the Russian police are far better trained, while the opposition is simply not ready for street clashes. Today, every unauthorized rally can be suppressed by the police without any significant resistance.

Finally, the regime has successfully been able to divide and isolate different protest initiatives. Even though social protests are becoming more and more frequent due to the protracted economic crisis, they have remained either local and/or depoliticized. For example, a promising movement against renovation programs in Moscow (protesting the demolition of so-called “Khrushchyovkas,” , apartment buildings constructed in the 1950s – 1960s) is apolitical. It organized a rally in May at which political content was prohibited; the rally was unsuccessful, as the buildings will be demolished according to a recent presidential decree.

The regime is still broadly supported by the masses, which are passive and prefer political stability (even though economic stability is a thing of the past). Navalny has had some success in trying to gain support in the Russian regions, though his regional political infrastructure still remains fragile and underdeveloped.

It seems that nobody believes that the opposition will have any quick success. Isolated groups try only to achieve their own particular goals. Yes, Navalny is securing his position as the leader of the opposition. One rally every three months is enough for that. But it is not enough to unite diverse social and political initiatives. Nonetheless, the opposition will likely maintain its current strategy. Navalny will organize occasional rallies and establish regional headquarters that can coordinate protest against Putin’s reelection in 2018. Opposition supporters counter that they are able to rely on young people. However, the political capacity of Russia’s youth is overestimated; in 2011 – 2012 the share of young people among the demonstrators was also high (approximately 25%)—and the protests were suppressed anyway.

Regardless, winter—and the 2018 presidential election—is coming. We will indeed see new demonstrations in the second half of this year, since any election is an occasion to protest—even if there is no chance that the president will be replaced. The question remains, however: will the opposition be able to accumulate and exploit the experience of previous protests, finish constructing regional infrastructure, and develop adequate strategy and tactics?

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