In one of the largest public protests witnessed in Russia in the last five years, a wave of demonstrations swept across the country on March 26. Led by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the protestors rallied against systemic corruption in the Russian state. The trigger was Navalny’s exposure of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s opulent lifestyle. These demonstrations follow the growing trend of brief strikes in different regions by truckers, teachers, pensioners and labourers. At a time of heightened nationalism over the Ukrainian confrontation, these events cast doubts about the narrative of a stable political system. Given the scope and importance of these protests, and the impending Presidential elections in 2018, the pertinent questions are: What are the root causes of these protests? How different are they from the last big demonstration in 2012? And, will they reshape Russia’s political landscape? Incidentally, this year marks the centennial of the 1917 Revolution, which has left a deep imprint on the Russian psyche.
Given the tone and tenor of the protests, it appears that their key driving force is the festering dissatisfaction over the ongoing economic crisis. In the last three years, the Russian economy has faced the double whammy of Western sanctions and lower hydrocarbon prices, which have exposed its structural deficiencies. It has resulted in the economy shrinking by more than 4.5 per cent.1 More importantly, real disposable income has fallen by 12.3 per cent, leading to an increase in poverty and unemployment levels.2 Several regions, particularly the ‘monotowns’, suffer from unsustainable levels of mounting debt.3 Against this backdrop, Navalny’s anti-corruption message has struck a chord with a section of Russian citizens. For them, Navalny’s discourse that the elites not making sacrifices for the country appears timely and therefore salient. This has also led to a growing perception among political analysts that the social contract between the state and the people – of promoting economic growth in return for political stability – could unravel in future.
The fundamental difference between the 2012 and 2017 protests lies in their orientation. The former was rooted in perceived malpractices during the Presidential elections and in the notion that the Russian electorate has been taken for granted. This was reflected in the swapping of positions between then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. The tone, therefore, was much more political in nature. It was also largely restricted to the more politically vibrant cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, with undercurrents of western support.
The recent protests are, however, notable for their geographical spread, spanning more than 85 cities across 11 time zones. This reflects the extensive participation of people, even in areas that have been the traditional support base of the government. Notably, Navalny campaigned in only a fraction of these cities. State-owned Russia Television pointed out the involvement of 8,000 protestors in Moscow, 3,000 in St. Petersburg, 1,500 in Novosibirsk, 500 in Vladivostok, 400 in Tomsk and 300 in Irkutsk.4 Independent media agencies cited much higher numbers.
More significantly, these protests highlight the undercurrents of a demographic shift in Russia. A large number of protestors comprised of young people who were born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.5 Their orientation on stability, economic growth and the likelihood of making sacrifices for their country remain mostly uncharted. Thus, the emergence of this section as an active stakeholder adds new vigour to the Russian political landscape. This is reflected in their willingness to court arrest by participating in unsanctioned protests. In Moscow alone, more than 600 people were detained.6 Also, their embrace of technology has seen them rely more on social media to mould their views rather than depending on the largely state regulated print and electronic media. As a result, live updates during protests, on platforms like Vkontakte, helped them coordinate better.
It is, however, is unlikely that a new Russian revolution is in the offing. Economic discontent, highlighted as the root cause of the protests, is likely to wane in the future. Fiscal indicators reveal that the worst of the Russian crisis is over. The economy is projected to grow in excess of 1.4 per cent in 2017.7 Unemployment and inflation levels are likely to be more manageable, declining to the range of 4 to 5 per cent from a peak of 13 per cent.8 The outlook for next year is also on similar lines. This positive sentiment has been reinforced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).9
More significantly, the protestors targeted Prime Minister Medvedev rather than President Putin. In the Russian system of governance, the Prime Minister guides the economy. Putin’s popularity remains in excess of 80 per cent. He is credited with ensuring stability and restoring Russia’s great power status. The domestic discourse is also geared to encouraging Russian resilience against perpetual adversaries. And Putin is emblematic of this romanticised manifestation. It is, therefore, unlikely that a movement capable of unseating him will evolve in the near future. Further, the number of protestors, though youthful and vocal, has been quite small. During the protests, they objected to any comparison with the 2014 Ukrainian Maidan Revolution. Doubts also exist about their ability to mount a prolonged campaign. If push comes to shove, it is likely that Putin will deflect attention by appointing a new Prime Minister. He could also channel the protests to overhaul the administration by appointing younger technocrats. This could help taper the existing fault-lines. Incidentally, Medvedev’s popularity in the aftermath of the demonstrations has declined by a whopping 10 per cent, even as Putin’s remains unaffected.10
The government, meanwhile, appears to have adopted a two pronged strategy to keep a lid on the protests. First, the clampdown has been measured, with the majority of detained people being let off with a warning or a token fine. This is in sharp contrast to the stern action taken in 2012. Such an approach can be also viewed through the lens of allowing protestors to give vent to their frustrations. And second, the government has sought to discredit Navalny and increase its regulation of the social media.11 Plans to create a loyal youth following are in the pipeline. Consequently, it is unlikely that a regime change is in the offing even though corruption might be the government’s weak-spot. Opponents like Navalny are, however, likely to use this opportunity to increase their political footprints by riding the wave of anti-corruption. This might lead to a more vibrant political discourse in the future. But the perfect storm that will replicate the events of 1917 is not visible on the horizon.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.