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What the Protests in Russia Could Mean for the Kremlin

6 MINS READAug 1, 2019 | 21:45 GMT
How the Kremlin chooses to acknowledge or suppress Russia’s upcoming regional elections will be key to watch as a sign of how threatened it feels by the latest wave of opposition protests.
(VALERI SHARIFULIN/TASS via Getty Images)

Russia's opposition staged protests in Moscow on July 27 over the barring of independent candidates from upcoming local elections in September. Nearly 1,400 demonstrators were detained as a result of the demonstrations.

Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.
The Big Picture

The Russian government's decision to exclude several independent candidates from upcoming local elections has resulted in a recent wave of protests in Moscow. In its 2019 Third-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor noted that the Kremlin would successfully contain such demonstrations by deploying its usual mixture of security crackdowns and concessions. But the true impact of the demonstrations will hinge less on their activity in the streets, but more on their ability to produce a sizable loss for Moscow and its political proxies in the voting booth come September. 

What Happened 

On July 27, an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets in Moscow to protest the barring of independent candidates from upcoming local elections. In the end, the unauthorized rally resulted in the arrests of nearly 1,400 demonstrators. This was the second straight weekend of mass opposition protests in the country's capital, following July 20 demonstrations that attracted roughly 20,000 people. 

On July 29, the Moscow mayor's office authorized an opposition protest on the city's Garden Ring at Sakharov Avenue on Aug. 3. The activists have since contested this venue and called for a more central location on Lubyanka Square instead, with Libertarian Party Leader Mikhail Svetov saying the authorized location didn't "suit" the opposition movement. 

Following the latest rally, Russia's prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, warned that the government would use "the entire range of response measures" should unsanctioned demonstrations continue to take place in Moscow. The city's mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, also issued a strongly worded statement following the July 27 protests, noting that "order will be secured and it cannot be otherwise." 

A Moscow court subsequently sentenced Svetov to 30 days in prison for his role in organizing unsanctioned protests. Svetov joins jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was detained last week for his own involvement in the demonstrations. Navalny was also briefly hospitalized with an allergic reaction earlier this week, fueling rumors that he was poisoned in prison, though this has been denied by the hospital's chief physician.

Why It Matters 

Such protests are not out of the ordinary in Russia. However, the latest demonstrations have been notable due to their size, persistence and — perhaps most importantly — their timing, coming just weeks ahead of important regional elections. The Kremlin's reaction — including large-scale detentions and the preemptive arrests of organizers — also suggests that authorities are concerned about the demonstrations gaining momentum in the lead-up to the Sept. 8 elections, which include city council contests in Moscow, as well as more than a dozen elections for governor and regional parliament positions.

While authorities in Moscow did initially approve demonstrations for Aug. 3, even after unsanctioned protests were held the two prior weekends, the rejection of the location by protest organizers suggests that activists and opposition groups are becoming more confident in challenging the Kremlin on the streets as well. 

A Case Study of the Kremlin's "Managed Democracy"

From a broader perspective, the interplay between protesters and authorities can be seen within the context of the Kremlin's long-pursued "managed democracy" strategy, which selectively blends elements of democracy and authoritarian rule. When it comes to demonstrations, the Kremlin often deploys a carrot-and-stick approach — with authorities cracking down on unsanctioned and politically motivated protests, while selectively offering concessions on economic issues and more specific protest causes like construction and infrastructure. Allowing certain forms of protests while suppressing others enables Moscow to manage dissent and ensure demonstrations don't turn into an existential threat. 

The Kremlin risks facing unprecedented losses in the country’s upcoming regional elections, should opposition protesters end up taking their grievances to the ballot box.

But while this strategy has proven effective in containing demonstrations on the street, it has proven to be far less successful at managing dissent at the ballot box. In last year's regional elections, the ruling United Party lost an unprecedented three out of four runoff gubernatorial contests. Even so, the winning opposition candidates each hailed from more systemic parties — namely, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party — which ultimately fall in line with the Kremlin on strategic matters. 

The bigger concern for the Kremlin, however, is the increasing influence of non-systemic parties and opposition figures, such as Navalny and the Libertarian Party, who have been behind the latest spate of protests. At the national level, these groups don't pose a serious challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was reelected for a fourth term last year in a landslide electoral victory. But the protests are a symptom of a growing wave of political activism at a regional and local level, which could prove more difficult for the Kremlin to manage via security crackdowns and political engineering, which it uses for national presidential and parliamentary elections. 

What to Watch For

With this in mind, there is a chance the protests could amount to a much less manageable and more unpredictable situation if it results in a backlash against both United Russia and more moderate opposition parties in the upcoming regional elections. But much of this will depend on the following key developments in the weeks ahead: 

The size and scope of future protests. So far, the protests have roughly remained within the range of 10,000-20,000 people. If these numbers grow to 50,000 or even upwards of 100,000, it would indicate that the movement is gaining serious momentum. Demonstrations to date have only taken place in Moscow. But the spread of protests into regional centers and smaller cities would indicate the demonstrations are becoming a more serious political — and potentially electoral — threat as well.

The government's reaction. The Kremlin has so far vacillated between crackdowns and concessions against protesters. But should the Kremlin start pursuing tighter security and political control — or, conversely, accede to the demands of protesters to allow independent, non-systemic candidates to contest the elections (such as the Libertarian Party) — it would represent a significant change to its traditional approach to demonstrations. A more extreme reaction from the government could also fuel further protests ahead of the elections and swing the vote. The way in which the Kremlin chooses to ultimately address (or suppress) the regional elections in September will also be key in gauging how threatened it feels by the demonstrations.

The international response. The reaction out of the West — especially the United States — to the protest crackdowns will also be important to watch, as it could result in additional sanctions against Russia. 

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