The ruling class has taken advantage of the crisis to increase its control over society. The Kremlin has begun a new phase in the privatization of Russia, which could result in the complete liquidation of civil society.
The protests in the Russian capital in the summer of 2019 surprised not only the authorities, but also the opposition and independent candidates aspiring to run for the Moscow City Duma elections. Since the times of mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the Moscow Duma has been considered one of the weakest regional assemblies in Russia. Its powers are limited, and the executive power is concentrated in the hands of the mayor. Local governments cannot make any independent decisions. It is the town hall that decides what happens in the districts.
Social activists not affiliated with any parties declared, however, their willingness to participate in the elections. With the help of Alexei Navalny’s team, the district councilors created a joint system of collecting signatures necessary to register candidates without the support of political parties. Contrary to the expectations of the authorities, the oppositionists managed to agree on who was running in which constituency and collect the required number of signatures. As a result, the authorities had to rig the registration process in order to remove the names of the independent candidates.
In Russia, a hierarchical and centralized state, activism generally starts in the capital and moves from there to the regions. This time it was different.
The violation of the electoral law was so blatant that it triggered massive protests. The social base of the narrow circle of activists began to grow rapidly, and the protest was joined by representatives of various social groups—not only young people, but also visitors from other cities, as the Moscow authorities claimed. According to the available data,¹ the protests were attended by representatives of various age groups, and their age distribution was approximately the same as in 2011. What had changed was the significant increase in the number of women taking part in the protests. This confirms the claim that Russian women are increasingly active in politics, also in the face of the attempts to restrict their rights.
The Regional Aspect
An important factor in the summer protests in Moscow was their regional aspect. In Russia, a hierarchical and centralized state, activism generally starts in the capital and moves from there to the regions. This time it was different.
Mass dissatisfaction spilled out onto the streets in the regions as early as the beginning of 2019. Yekaterinburg became the first hotbed, where people protested against plans to build St. Catherine’s Church in the city center, replacing a square in front of the Drama Theater. The second issue was the Shies settlement in the Archangelsk region, where the local population and ecologists opposed the creation of a landfill site, where waste from Moscow was to be disposed of.
In Moscow, the first mass protests were not connected with politics and elections, but took place in defense of the journalist Ivan Golunov, against whom a criminal case was fabricated. People also protested against the arbitrary actions of the police. To prevent the protests from spreading, the authorities gave way under pressure from the demonstrators. It was precisely the regional protests and the campaign to defend Golunov that prepared public opinion in the capital city to protest against electoral fraud and police violence.
The precedent of working together to collect signatures, in defense of illegally convicted persons, now allows them to jointly prepare for the 2021 elections and try to defend individual civil society institutions.
After the police and officers of the National Guard (special operations units) began to brutally attack participants of peaceful demonstrations and rallies, appeals began to be heard even inside the ruling class not to escalate the violence. Sergei Chemezov, an influential friend of Vladimir Putin from the KGB and head of the state corporation Rostechnologie, as well as Alexei Kudrin, the previously silent head of the state Audit Office, former finance minister and an old acquaintance of Vladimir Putin, cautiously spoke against the pacification of protests. They may have been concerned about the excessive strengthening of security forces.
The Consolidation of Opposition Groups
In response, the authorities shifted to a tactic of selective persecution of protesters and stepped up the fight against political opponents—pressure on civil society and the opposition increased significantly. The State Duma made an application to the executive for Deutsche Welle, as well as the Russian television station Dozhd’ (Rain) and the Russian-language website Medusa registered in Latvia, to be classified as ‘foreign agents’. The Czech NGO Člověk v tísni was declared an undesirable organization. The authorities also began to liquidate disloyal non-commercial organizations—the Movement for Human Rights headed by Lev Ponomaryov was the first victim. A criminal case was launched, initiated against the Anti-Corruption Foundation of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny; its offices were searched and activists detained throughout the country.
In November 2019, the State Duma adopted four new laws. Firstly, multi-million-dollar fines were introduced for refusal of communicator operators such as Whatsapp or Telegram to transfer encryption keys to users’ correspondence. Fines were also imposed for refusing to transfer user data to Russia. The second act obliges all sellers to install ‘Russian cybersecurity software’ on their phones, certified by the Federal Security Service. The third blow was inflicted on lawyers, who in Russia are increasingly being denied the right to practice their profession. Amendments to the Media Act were also adopted, such as extending the term ‘foreign agent’ to individual persons. The media registered as foreign agents are obliged to establish (within one month) a separate legal entity in Russia, which will be responsible for their publications (even in the case of foreign media).
The 2019 protests also contributed, however, to the consolidation of activist and opposition groups. The precedent of working together to collect signatures, in defense of illegally convicted persons, now allows them to jointly prepare for the 2021 elections and try to defend individual civil society institutions. The scope for action is getting increasingly tighter. It is expected that in 2020 the authorities will make changes to electoral legislation to prevent the opposition from registering candidates. It is possible that before the 2021 elections these groups will be divided once again. The Kremlin may allow, for example, the political and social activities of moderate opposition or NGOs receiving presidential grants from Vladimir Putin’s Administration to continue, while others may be harassed with criminal prosecutions and thus forced to cease their activities.
The future course of action of the Russian authorities and opposition depends on whether the potential of the protest will increase or decrease. Over the last few years, protest activity has been growing in proportion to the decline of the standard of living. For the time being, forecasts indicate that this trend is continuing.
- www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2019/09/30/812372-kak-izmenilsya-protest, Ведомости, 30 September 2019, Алексей Захаров, Александра Архипова
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