On March 26, Russia recalled events that had previously been totally forgotten. Tens of thousands took to the streets in approximately 100 cities from the Far East to the North Caucasus.
Thousands were arrested and some of them are still in jail. The impetus was an anti-corruption investigation made by Aleksei Navalny about prime minister Medvedev’s ‘hidden empire’. Uploaded on YouTube, the video got millions of views1. Nevertheless, the Kremlin, government, and Duma refused to discuss either the investigation or problems of corruption in general. As a result, Navalny and his supporters organized rallies in dozens of Russian cities.
The local authorities prohibited all of these rallies in every city for different – sometimes absolutely illegal – reasons. I have to note that Russian legislation literally impedes the possibility of free expression of political opinion. But even this legislation was violated by the authorities. Moreover, the organizers of the rallies came under police pressure. For example, an organizer in Khabarovsk was fined before a rally for possible violations that might occur during the event2. In Bryansk region, a school student was taken away from lessons for a ‘conversation’ with police, because he had spread information about Navalny’s investigation on social media. Teachers then proceeded to lecture his classmates about ‘stability’ and ‘threat’ of revolutions3. However, such news only radicalized possible participants and improved turnout.
The rallies were the largest protest event in Russia since 2012. Observers noticed that it was mostly young people who took to the streets. However, we shouldn’t overestimate this event for several reasons.
First of all, the Kremlin has already demonstrated that it was able to manage street protests. A combination of limited repression and unlimited propaganda may be still effective. The April 3 terrorist attack in St. Petersburg can be used by the regime to call for ‘national unity’.
Second, the wave of mobilization seems to be short in duration. Even if new rallies follow the March 26 protests, they will be smaller. The opposition cannot organize permanent pressure on the regime. Political mobilization is still a discrete rather than a continuous phenomenon.
Moreover, other protest initiatives remain unsuccessful. Truck drivers have tried to organize a national strike against new taxes enacted in 2015, and were already able to spark protests at that time4. Though this strike is still ongoing in different regions, the number of supporters is not enough to ensure positive outcomes.
The possible shutdown of the European University at St. Petersburg, by contrast, has yet to cause any notable protest actions. This leading Russian research centre in the field of political sciences and sociology is under threat of elimination because of political and economic reasons. The former are that the educational process in the university is too independent and critical toward the regime, while the latter is that the building of the university is desired by undetermined business structures—which, according to a view popular on social media, are close to Prime Minister Medvedev. According to Navalny’s investigation, Medvedev owns a mansion in the centre of St. Petersburg near the university5. Currently, the cancellation of the license of the university is being decided in court at the moment. The existence of independent courts in Russia is far from proven; therefore, reliance on a judicial solution seems to be strange. Moreover, this reliance is a significant obstacle to protest mobilization.
To conclude it seems that the regime is not very afraid of protest activity. The Kremlin experienced massive rallies in 2011-2012, but after analysing the 2013-14 events in Ukraine, developed effective tools to secure the status quo. On the other hand, the opposition is not able to support protracted political mobilization. Most protesters still want to avoid radicalization. Nevertheless, the recent events demonstrate the existence of unresolved contradictions in Russian political, social, and economic life.
1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrwlk7_GF9g 2 https://meduza.io/news/2017/03/21/v-habarovske-oshtrafovali-organizatora-mitinga-kotorogo-esche-ne-bylo 3 https://meduza.io/feature/2017/03/18/to-est-patriotov-v-vashem-klasse-net 4 Interview with one of the leaders of the truck drivers http://www.rbc.ru/spb_sz/27/03/2017/58d8a47a9a79479b489544c6 5 On the situation with the European University: http://www.rbc.ru/society/30/03/2017/58dbcf739a794705291f8c4c