Only two years ago, civil protests would have been of marginal interest to most Russians. Citizens wouldn’t even dare cross a boulevard carrying banners in numb hands. Neither would the author of this article – a young, independent writer. You may probably wonder why. The answer is indifference acting as a contagious disease. I used to be infected as well, until being injected with the vital necessity to ask questions, consider, assume and analyze every significant event in the country, after the protests of 2011 Chistye Prudy, December 5; Triumphalnaya Square, December 7; Bolotnaya Square, December 10, 17, 18; Sakharova Avenue, December 24; Bolotnaya Square, January 8, 14, 21; White Circle Car Protest on Garden Ring, January 29, which aimed to gather over 2,000 cars around the ring; Moscow rally protest, February 4 – and now continued protests after the presidential election on March 4.
The full sweep of these nonviolent actions has embraced all the major population centers, having been initially triggered by numerous reports of vote-rigging in parliamentary elections. Tens of thousands of people have filled the central squares and streets. Among them are teachers, salesmen, workers, lawyers, single mothers and pensioners – all walking side by side, even with billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest Russian man (and owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team), who challenged Putin in the elections.
Globalists have shared the street with ultranationalists, communists and liberal-democrats – all tolerating each other. Grassroots resisters have chanted: “We are the power.” “Enough!” “For fair elections!” “Fed up!” “Try us, Mr. Putin!” “We do not need the Arab Spring, just our votes!” The crowds have carried banners, white ribbons, signs and balloons and could hardly be called a massive outpouring of public anger, but rather, a mature way of nonviolently expressing popular expectations, demands and opinions. Considering these events, which could be fairly called “the Russian Spring” (though an abnormally cold Russian winter is still asserting itself), one could ask a number of questions regarding the conditions that inspired people to join these peaceful protests. What are their reasons and demands? Is it just about Vladimir Putin?
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“Everyone is sick of living under this regime which forbids freedom of expression. We are against the lies and the bankrupt politicians.” “I’m still indifferent to any political party. But it’s my obligation as a citizen to be here.” “We no longer have fear.” These on-the-spot comments seem to speak louder than the prewritten speeches of numerous politicians and opposition party leaders who have sprinted to the forefront of some protests.
Despite the simplicity of these comments, it’s important to acknowledge the underlying reasons that have inspired even the most apolitical citizens to stake a claim for change. Indeed, “apolitical” is the key concept here. At the beginning of the so-called “zero age” of the Putin era, which later turned out to be zero in other ways, the new regime was much welcomed. That was the time when the magic word “stability” was a mantra for ordinary people who had experienced the chaos of the ’90s. In the mid-2000s, the charms of stability began fading, transmuting into the dismaying reality of political and economic stagnation.
Inevitably, the value of abstract concepts from the top, such as stability and protectorship, began to depreciate within public consciousness. Global social networks such as Facebook, V kontakte and Twitter were full of the indignation expressed by those dissatisfied with the regime. Notorious criminal cases involving major players, such as the Lukoil, Magnitsky and Politkovskaya cases, were largely unresolved and added to the picture. The disastrous level of corruption, in practically all economic and political spheres, is not unique to the present, of course, although many feel that it is critical. It has taken more than ten years for people’s discontent to overflow into a full-scale protest movement with an impressive and rapidly developing use of nonviolent action.
So, with the smell of weaponless gunpowder in the air, so to speak, only a tiny spark was lacking. September 24, 2011, turned out to be that spark. The prime minister moved to return to the presidency, enabling himself to remain until 2024, which would give him a rule comparable in length to that of Brezhnev or Stalin. Due to this apparent reshuffle, the public has realized that Mr. Putin seemed to have a bee in his bonnet, i.e. the idea of merging economic, political and social stability into one – his own stability.
“They have been feeding us that line for the last 12 years. We’re sick of it. It is time to break the chains. We are not cattle or slaves. We have a voice and we have the strength to get ourselves heard.” Such desperate words prove that the prospect of Putin’s third term became associated in the public mind not merely with another act in the play of political self-presentation, but also represented an insult to the current and future generations whose choices of leadership seem already to have been made for them. The majority of protesters are sick and tired of the constant show of muscle against political opponents – a kind of primitiveness and disrespect for the people.
Finally, poorly directed election fraud in the parliamentary elections on December 4, with its complete lack of skillful screen writers and talented actors, was perceived as another example illustrating the degree to which the current government has gained control over the national democratic process and doesn’t much care who notices.
As the unlucky hostage of its own self-defined legitimacy, the government made several fateful mistakes, leading the opposition to make several demands, including: (1) Immediate release of political prisoners and those wrongfully convicted, (2) an annulment of the falsified parliamentary elections, (3) the resignation of Central Election Committee Chairman Vladimir Churov and an investigation into the violations recorded during the election process and (4) the ratification of legislation regulating opposition parties’ ability to compete in national elections.
By its participation in this equivalent of a movement, the middle class established the credibility of demands like these, as well as becoming a distinct force with which to be reckoned. But more broadly, what does this “movement” hope to accomplish eventually? This is one of the most complicated questions, which even opposition leaders are trying to avoid. However, there seems to an answer and I heard it best expressed by one protester, Tamara Voronina, 54, who was so proud of her three sons joining the protest: “People have come here because they want respect and freedom.” And it was also typified by this comment: “We can’t tolerate such a show of disrespect for the people, for the entire nation,” as journalist and music critic Artyomy Troitsky said in a speech at a rally.
All these people going out in the streets have a desperate desire to be heard and considered fairly. In their minds the acknowledgment that the power in this country has reached beyond the terms of democracy is naturally followed by an understanding that the political elite can’t be above the law. The rule of law is crucial, vital and indispensable for any state that claims to have developed into the democratic post-industrial society, members of which peaceful protesters wish to be.
Some in the media have offered the theory, supported by various political analysts (Alexey Bayer, Joshua Foust) that the Russian protest movement has been inspired by the Arab Spring. An obvious connection seems to be highly doubtful, but from an academic point of view, it is worth focusing on some common features between the political systems being challenged such as political decay and deterioration, combined with a complete lack of political alternatives to the ruling party. However, if you ask either ordinary people or protest organizers, you are likely to face strong denial of any correlation with the Arab Spring, mainly due to its violent phases in at least three countries. The majority of protesters have been more enthusiastic about emphasizing a direct link between current events and the more nonviolent protest actions in Russia occurring at the beginning of the ’90s.
Three distinguishing features seem to characterize the current Russian opposition (aka “bolotnki”) as an organized, nonviolent movement:
1. A horizontal structure: There is no apparent charismatic leader responsible for making decisions and working out major plans. Facebook, Twitter, and other open spaces act as idea foundries.
2. A strong differentiation between social and political rhetoric: Messages from opposition political parties and popular demands have not mixed yet.
3. A strong emphasis on being nonviolent. Vladimir Ryzhkov, a crucial opposition figure, says that mutual commitment to peaceful measures and an open dialogue among protesters, police officers and local authorities has proven much more effective than riots and violent uprisings.
This approach to protesting has presented a unique challenge to the government. The protesters may not have heard about Gene Sharp and his theories and very few of them are strategists. Nevertheless, as Olga Romanova and Alexey Parkhomenko (organizational committee members) have said, hundreds of those who have spent at least a couple of hours on Bolotnaya and Manezhnaya Squares are no longer able to relegate themselves to second-class status. This has prompted them to pursue additional tactics.
People have eagerly signed public petitions and statements, circulated leaflets and books, mocked official election results and called for change. For instance, for several weeks, it became extremely difficult not to bump into street banners urging Putin to leave or bunches of students wearing white ribbons and balloons. These people turned official politicians into comic-strip characters and readily joined White Circle Car Protests on Garden Ring. It would be premature and even silly to overestimate this, but to call them a new class of concerned citizens certainly seems to fit the situation.
Thankfully, opposition leaders and social activists haven’t been overly heady with the scope of dissent they have exhibited. Their collective determination became apparent during the regular coordination meetings before the presidential election, remarkable for heated discussions, disputes and a variety of opinions on the movement actions. The mutual respect was obvious.
Yet, still, at this stage a considerable number of shortcomings seem present in the movement.
The illusion of a majority: Thousands of people will flood the streets until participation in the protests remains safe and innocuous for their families, careers and future prospects, but whether they can come to represent most of the people of Russia remains to be seen.
Criticizing the protests as a global fashion trend is common among cynical Russians, but most Russians are unlikely to believe that Russians cannot do what other sophisticated peoples can, “when push comes to shove.”
A mainly social coalition organizing for civil freedoms and post-industrial values is not necessarily going to develop the kind of focused and strategic opposition that is capable of challenging the elite which run the state.
The challenge of developing a sustainable and resilient movement for change as Putin remains in power: This dilemma has always been a stumbling block for the advocates of both a long-term approach and a short-term one in Russia, as it has been everywhere else that “people power” has tried to gain traction and change an unyielding system. Movements that win are movements that solve this problem.
All these present shortcomings amount to one thing: a challenge to aggrieved Russians to develop what they are doing into something more than protest. If they can do that, none of their harsh critics within Russia will have the last word.