The recent Moscow protests have been seen as yet another turning point in anti-Putin oppositional politics. Nearly every individual who lives in the post-Soviet space can’t help but feel a personal connection to this story. Every new issue, every argument or disagreement in the Russian capital catches the attention of almost everyone in the former Soviet bloc countries who still feel deeply connected to Mother Russia. This has a lot to do with the “postcolonial” interest of satellite states in what is happening in the former metropolis and with the fact that every small victory in Moscow seems like another step toward stabilization in the region and democracy in Russia. But, in this case, is it really? Do the recent opposition protests in Russia signal a real change is coming? Or is it just more of the same false hope concealing the fact that pro-democracy efforts in Russia are really just a road to nowhere?
The Beginning of the Protest Movement
The recent protests began when not a single real opposition candidate was allowed to run in the Moscow Duma (legislative) election scheduled for September. The opposition, led by Alexei Navalny and Dmitry Gudkov, put forward about 20 candidates, of which 10 to 12 were expected to win (or at least get registered) out of 45 seats. Even though their participation posed no real threat to the current government, all opposition candidates were immediately disqualified.
Registration of candidates to the Moscow City Duma requires the collection of at least three percent of voters’ signatures in the district (roughly 5,000 signatures) in support of a candidate. On July 6, the deadline for the acceptance of registered signatures, additional checks of the opposition candidates’ signatures were conducted. Based on the results of the “checks,” the provided signatures were either rejected or disappeared altogether (for example, of the submitted 4,808 signatures for candidate Konstantin Jankauskas, 4,785 were found inadmissible).
An almost immediate reaction followed. Unregistered candidates began holding meetings with voters at election commissions; protesters gathered at the Central Election Commission (CEC) headquarters and city hall almost daily; protests took place (one individual was detained); petitions were signed; statements were issued by prominent political and cultural figures; appeals were written to the CEC demanding to allow the opposition candidates to run. After a week of silence from the CEC, the unregistered candidates announced a general meeting with voters on July 14. The CEC immediately announced that the planned gathering was a public protest that failed to comply with the required notification procedures and was therefore deemed illegal.
On July 14, more than 2,000 protesters gathered in front of Moscow City Hill. The organizers (the unregistered candidates) took turns giving speeches on an impromptu stage, after which the protesters, chanting “Register!” and “Russia without Putin!,” proceeded towards the offices of the CEC. Thirty-nine people were detained on the spot. By then, another protest had been called for July 27.
Between July 14 and 27, searches were carried out at the locations of several candidates and their offices; criminal proceedings were instituted against unregistered candidates for “obstructing the exercise of electoral rights.” Three days prior to the next protest, five more activists were detained, followed by an official statement that participation in the protests posed a safety concern to residents and the capital’s guests. Security officials went as far as 400 kilometers from Moscow to interrogate activists in the city of Orel about their possible participation in the upcoming protest.
The morning of July 27 began with searches of candidates and activists. When the protesters gathered by city hall (more than 20,000 people, according to opposition, and about 3,500, according to the authorities), security forces began to push them away from the building. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported 1074 detainees, while human rights activists reported that 1373 people were detained. There was also information about almost one hundred injured as a result of police beatings of detainees in custody. During the protest, one of the unregistered candidates, Ilya Yashin, suggested gathering again on August 3 if the CEC’s position did not change.
The position of the CEC remained unchanged, and the August 3 protest was not officially registered. By the time the protest began on August 3, more than 300 court hearings were in progress against previously detained participants. In the center of Moscow, several hours before the protests started, police stopped random passers-by for “explanatory conversations” about potential consequences of participation in “illegal gatherings.” The protest itself started off with the detention of Lyubov Sobol, one of Navalny’s unregistered candidates, and ended with over 1,000 people detained.
The Protest Movement Expands
Another protest occurred on August 10. This one was particularly interesting because it was officially “authorized” as a sort of peaceful compromise. At the same time, during the protest on August 10, several prominent youth musical groups promised to perform. Given that a concert during a protest is a sure way to gather a large young audience, the Moscow authorities backtracked, claiming they did not give permission for musical performances. Of course, these statements were ignored by the opposition.
Protests took place not only in Moscow, but also in St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Arkhangelsk, Belgorod, Rostov-on-Don, and other Russian cities. Protesters took to the streets, shouting the slogans “Give us back the election in Moscow” and “Allow them to run.” But it is rather noteworthy that besides the “Moscow” slogans, there appeared other rallying cries of local significance, with complaints about local authorities as well. The result: 341 people detained in five cities. All in all, the protests in July and August resulted in 2,500 detainees, one hunger strike, and dozens of criminal cases.
The response to the protests from the authorities seems to be intentionally over-the-top and unnecessarily harsh. Even pro-government observers have acknowledged that protests posing no threat whatsoever strangely resulted in thousands of arrests, dozens of criminal cases, and police beating people on the streets. Muscovites (not to mention the rest of the country) normally take little-to-no interest in either the participation or the outcome of the Moscow Duma elections. The last election took place in 2014 with a turnout of only 20 percent, and this is not an isolated precedent for the capital: less than 15 percent of Muscovites took part in the election for municipal deputies in 2016. Had the opposition had been allowed to run in the elections, they may have been able to use the occasion as means to attract more attention in the race, but the government’s actions, and decades of TV propaganda, have effectively destroyed any possibility of finding out. The government has been intentionally intimidating, going the extra mile to demonstrate a rigidity utterly disproportionate to the scale of the protests.
The Government’s Actions and Tactics against the Protests
In addition to the detentions, the authorities took other steps that are critical to understanding the protest. On August 4, the government-run newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta wrote an article describing the ways that massive unauthorized gatherings are dealt with and punished in different countries around the world. This was a rather extraordinary and exemplary piece of fake news, seasoned with all kinds of lies. The article featured some horrifying details about various charges brought against protesters in the United States, France, Britain, New Zealand, and Sweden. However, the article failed to mention that the charges brought against these “protesters” were for much more serious crimes that might have incidentally also included protesting, but was not the central issue at stake.
The standard anti-protest methods used by the Kremlin also included jamming mobile cell phone reception in the center of Moscow during protests and attempts to break into the phones of detainees. Also, on Twitter, various advertisement campaigns of food home delivery were launched just the day before and on the days of the protests, a way to keep potential protesters at home. On August 10, as a “cultural alternative” to the protests, Moscow authorities advertised a free, open air music festival and a food market, recycling an old and predictable move—entertainment versus protests.
When these tried-and-true tactics didn’t seem to work, and sensing the general mood of the public and on the streets remained the same, the authorities turned to some rather hard-core propaganda. Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, sprang into action, accusing the Americans and Germans of igniting the protests. This was also a classic move. The shadows of Cold War paranoia, still wandering the corridors of the Kremlin, could not help but appear in the Moscow protest media coverage. Zakharova managed to find a way to accuse the Americans of encouraging protests by citing the Embassy’s public message to American citizens in Russia, the purpose of which was actually to warn them of the protests and inform them of the possibility of danger along the protest routes. However, she managed to twist the meaning of this warning, as well as similar warnings in the German media outlet Deutsche Welle as an intervention in the state affairs of the Russian Federation and an attempt to foment anti-Kremlin sentiments.
Perhaps the most disturbing tactic of all came on August 3, when mass detentions began, as the Russian Guard issued a public request “to treat its employees with respect,” citing the fact that “your sons” might be among them. The following day, the NTV channel announced a stunning and truly unprecedented statement. The anonymous statement claimed the Guard would not hesitate to use their official positions to avenge the security forces and punish the friends and families of those responsible for inflicting injuries on them and their fellow comrades. It should be noted that during the month of protests, about 30 security forces officers received minor injuries, which is incomparable to the number of seriously injured protesters. But this was a clear and loud statement proving that the protests pose a serious danger to the existing regime.
What Makes These Protests So Special?
It’s important to note first that these protests, which have happened on a near-weekly basis since mid-July, have little to do with the Moscow Duma elections. The demands to allow the opposition candidates to run were weak; it was actually the slogans directed at the federal government, against Putin and, in part, against Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, that found a much greater response. However, even with these slogans, protesters fail to gather a significant number of people. The last protest, in which 50-60,000 people attended, was the most widely attended, but considering Moscow’s population is around 12 million, its comparative scale was quite small.
Yes, it is true the protests spread to other cities outside of Moscow, and the “Allow them to run” slogan has gone far beyond the city agenda. The ideological core of the last month of protests rests not only on the demands to hold fair elections in Moscow, but also to destroy the Kremlin regime system in its entirety.
It is also important to remember that this time around, even though the protest organizers are essentially the opposition, the protests themselves have a rather independent nature. Leaders are generally limited to short statements from impromptu stages. The “Allow them to Run” organization has departed from the traditional opposition line: less talk about political leaders, and more about random detainees. This is also a new phenomenon for Russian protesters, and it speaks to one crucial thing: protesters do not talk about a specific case; instead, they address various general issues and try to solve them. It’s about the people’s voice, and democracy.
The protesters are mostly youth using the Internet, members of international organizations and volunteer movements, and activist parties. These are the people who make up the modern Russian intelligentsia—the educated youth, metropolitans, and “creative class.” That is especially ironic since Mayor Sobyanin was so invested in trying to impress these groups with his urbanization of the capital. It was these people who eventually decided they no longer had to choose between bike lanes and a harsh and hostile political regime. These were, in fact, two sides of the same coin of democratization and awareness. And, although the protesters remain a rather marginal hangout of “political hipsters,” theirs number are still growing, and the degree of indifference in the country is slowly but surely declining.
The Opposition’s Limits
It’s hard to see how protesters in Russia could get so worked up about a municipal election that they have never cared about before. But, in fact, Russians were already on edge after the arrest of journalist Ivan Golunov, a reporter blatantly framed for his anti-Kremlin reporting, who was arrested on drug charges so clearly fabricated that nearly all of Russian society was up in arms. The protests that resulted soon after his arrest showed how the young people of Russia could transform a single case into a broader call for common values. The opposition then seized on the unity of the Russian people in the wake of the Golunov protests and used it as momentum to springboard their own protests. It was a sign of genius, but also demonstrated the limitations of the opposition.
The opposition protests repeat the same pattern, never gaining much momentum or traction, because eventually the protests turn in on themselves and become about the same things they are always about—the opposition and the personalities that fuel it (Navalny, etc). The police ramp up their tactics, throw protesters in jail, and the government deploys its propaganda tactics. And that is when the protests fizzle out. Most Russians don’t notice them or forget them, and the cycle begins again. Once again, what seemed to be a “window of opportunity” will not be used.
But what made these recent Russian protests unique was the rising participation of young people, first time protesters, and political outsiders—who when they get involved might be able to bring about the change and the leaders that the “old” opposition has been trying to produce. Until the opposition recognizes the potential of young people and understands that the best way to mobilize large crowds of frustrated people is to focus on the importance of their lives, their stories, their problems, and their reality, they will continue on the long road from nowhere to nowhere.