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Jun 12, 2017 | 23:01 GMT

In Russia, Protests Demonstrate a Fundamental Change

(OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Protests have swept across Russia once again, and the Kremlin has wasted no time in moving to quash them. Demonstrators, many of whom were answering the calls of prominent Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny, flooded into the streets of more than 145 cities across the country on June 12 to demand an end to corruption, better standards of living and some form of democracy. The protests highlighted the increasing willingness of young Russians to engage in political action, as well as the government's willingness to use mass arrests to crack down on them. As the Kremlin gears up for a prolonged election cycle, President Vladimir Putin's administration is concerned about protecting the margins of its electoral victories nationwide. And though the recent political commotion is not enough to drive Putin from office, it will lay the groundwork for a shift in Russia's political landscape down the road.

Authorities detained Navalny outside his home June 12 after he called on protesters in Moscow to switch their planned demonstration route from Akademika Sakharova Prospekt to Tverskaya Street, a large and iconic thoroughfare that leads straight to Red Square and the Kremlin. The Moscow mayor's office had issued a permit allowing 15,000 people to march along Akademika Sakharova Prospekt, but Navalny made the street change after claiming officials had pressured suppliers not to provide audio and video equipment for the demonstration. Electricity to Navalny's Moscow YouTube channel was cut overnight, preventing protesters from livestreaming their march. In addition, authorities removed from two regional government websites Navalny's documentary accusing Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev of corruption, dubbing its placement on the websites a hack. Authorities also detained some individuals or barricaded others in their homes ahead of the protests.

Participation in the demonstrations was notable in both size and geographic scope. Local governments in Novosibirsk, Kazan, Omsk, Tomsk, Irkutsk and elsewhere outside Moscow reported protests by a few thousand people in their cities. Those are official estimates, however, which tend to be on the low side. Estimates in Moscow varied wildly between 5,000 and 100,000. The majority of protesters were young adults, a mark of the generational change taking place in Russia.

In a sign that the Kremlin has no intention of backing down, Russian security forces were out in force across the country, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Police erected barricades of sandbags and tank traps along Tverskaya Street, though they claimed the obstructions were part of military re-enactments planned to mark Russia Day. Police also set up loudspeakers along the demonstration route and surrounding streets, repeatedly telling marchers that their protest was illegal and warning of arrests. As the protests have continued (as of this writing), police have warned they would respond with tear gas should the crowds push toward Red Square. Nearly 1,000 protesters were reportedly arrested in Moscow. Police were ready with large buses to take detainees away, and there were reports of police stations overwhelmed by having to process the arrests. These circumstances were not unique to the capital, either; arrests were reported in most cities across Russia. 

Picking Away at Putin's Support 

The protests are a sign that the country's political scene is undergoing a fundamental change. The mass protests of 2011-12 were sparked by singular events during an election season, and some factions received financial and technical backing from the West. By contrast, the current protests grew organically out of a series of deeply rooted grievances with government corruption, a lack of democracy and stagnant economic conditions. The Kremlin could make some nominal concessions to address these issues, but the grievances have to do with the Russian system itself — something that is not easily reformed. That the demonstrations arose as the country enters a prolonged political cycle, with 17 gubernatorial elections scheduled in September and a presidential election set for March, does not bode well for Putin, who is expected to run for a fourth term. The Kremlin already has abandoned its plan to promote voter turnout, fearing that more voters would cast ballots that are not in the ruling administration's favor.

Though the current protests are not enough to force Putin from power, they could shape small electoral wins in regional races and pick away at the president's majority. More important, the protesters' sentiments are taking root and eventually could shift the Kremlin's behavior down the line. In the meantime, to gauge the effectiveness of both the Kremlin and its opponents, there are a series of signs to look for in the years to come.

Navalny's protest movement has already shown its ability to bring people into the streets. The next thing to watch for is whether Navalny and his supporters can collaborate and coordinate messages with other opposition and protest movements, both independent and systemic. Navalny's chief rival among the opposition, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, threw his support behind the June 12 protests despite his public criticism of Navalny. Khodorkovsky even set up a crowdfunding link to help pay the legal bills of protesters arrested in the demonstrations. A protest movement against a massive demolition project in Moscow also joined the rally.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party has seen a recent boost in popularity, and one of its rising stars, Andrei Klychkov, is bringing fresh blood to a party that traditionally has had an older demographic. Klychkov, too, has expressed support for Navalny. A relationship between Navalny and the Communist Party could one day prove a powerful force against Putin and the Kremlin.

The Kremlin's Full Toolbox

The Kremlin has plenty of tools to try to moderate protesters' passions. For instance, the government plans to pump more money into the Russian economy by draining one of its rainy day funds. Many Russians continue to endure economic hardship, despite the country slowly pulling out of recession. Special financing for jobs or pensions could be a temporary fix, even if it doesn't address the deeper economic constraints the country faces.

The Kremlin also could sack Medvedev for his reported corruption as a symbolic concession. Firing the prime minister would placate many protesters, but it also would open the door for the movement to then focus on bigger fish in the Kremlin, such as Putin himself. The Kremlin, moreover, is attempting to revive its use of patriotic youth movements by setting up scholarships and summer camps. But the current protest movement isn't unpatriotic or pro-Western. Even so, Putin is trying to divert participation into more Kremlin-friendly groups, despite such groups' popularity mostly fizzling since their heyday in the mid-2000s. The Kremlin claims to have 100,000 participants in its military-centric Yunarmiya patriotic movement, though many Kremlin critics question that number.

The Russian government could crack down on any governor or security unit that does not comply with orders to suppress the protests as well. Last week saw a jumble of confused messaging when numerous cities granted protest permits against the Kremlin's orders. Once Moscow issued its permit, it seemed the Kremlin had accepted the inevitable. But such regional dissidence may not be overlooked, and the Kremlin could replace those governors and mayors in the future. The same concern looms whether or not the various security services remain willing to crack down on the protests in the future, particularly with so many youths participating in them. This is one of the reasons Putin has set up his own National Guard, which is more loyal to him than to other security services or regional leaders.

In the meantime, the West's response to developments in Russian politics will be key to watch. The United States, Germany and France are distracted by their own internal affairs. But the West still has an incentive to push back on Putin's administration and could claim opposition leaders already dominating the scene, like Navalny, as their new champions. That said, though Navalny and other opposition leaders are critical of Putin's government, they are not necessarily supportive of the West. (Navalny arrived on the scene out of a series of nationalist, anti-Muslim protests; he has yet to show any positive sentiment toward the West or a willingness to work with it.) This doesn't mean, however, that the goals of the West and the Russian opposition will not conveniently align at some point in the future.

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