Last weekend, anti-corruption protests rocked the country. Instead of being concentrated only in Moscow and St Petersburg, Russia’s traditional “protest hubs”, they took place in nearly 100 cities. The regional protests, organised by anti-corruption campaigner and presidential hopeful Alexei Navalny, did not occur out of the blue either – from farmers in Krasnodar to truckers nationwide, visible dissatisfaction within groups not traditionally associated with dissent has been on the rise for some time now.
As many observers have noted, last weekend’s protests also had one distinct characteristic: many of the people who turned up were young. Those protesting teenagers – who didn’t care if the protests were sanctioned or not as they didn’t feel the need to have the government’s permission to go out into the streets – are harder to manipulate as they don’t take everything said on state television as gospel.
They also have no experience of the Soviet Union, having been born too late for that, and are therefore harder to scare.
Plenty of people both inside and outside Russia have taken all this as a sign that real change is finally coming to Russia – and by “change” I mean greater government transparency and more political pluralism.
Personally, I am doubtful. One of the greatest lessons of the Arab Spring, for example, is that youth dissatisfaction can certainly help change the political landscape – but at a cost. Precisely because young people are harder to “break”, officials often feel they have no choice but to push back violently against them.
And while I don’t think that Vladimir Putin is interested in gunning teenagers down in the street or acting out any other apocalyptic scenario, the truth is that the system he presides over is by default rigid, inflexible and aggressive towards the citizens it is meant to serve.
When we think of regime aggression, we think of it as something abstract and/or ideological. The truth is, Russian regime aggression is most visible on the individual level, and usually manifests itself as a kind of inertia.
I’ll give you a good example of what I mean: a few weeks ago, a friend in Moscow had her phone stolen in a mall. She walked over to the local police precinct to file a complaint, and was immediately subjected to abuse. Note, she wasn’t dragged there for civil disobedience. She just wanted to report a crime – but was treated as a criminal herself.
She was first subjected to a humiliating search. Then one policeman explained that her registration papers weren’t in order – perhaps he ought to investigate that instead of the actual theft, he said. The phone was not turned off and could easily be tracked to a warehouse nearby, as my friend repeatedly explained – at which the officers just laughed.
Why did the police behave this way? First of all, because they knew they could. But, on a deeper level, the system they operate within is itself designed to abuse virtually anyone who comes in contact with it and is not privileged enough to make agents of the state think twice about their own aggression. This is precisely the reason why a shocking 99% of Russian criminal defendants are convicted; if the state comes after you, you are guilty by default.
A system designed for abuse and facing zero accountability is bound to escalate the abuse. Protests are the perfect trigger for escalation – especially because Putin remains widely popular and officials acting in his name will therefore feel legitimised to use any measures to stamp out dissent.
Blood in the streets seems like a hysterical and outlandish scenario for either Moscow or St Petersburg, but of course things are different elsewhere in the country. Consider the case of the terrifying Kushchyovskaya massacre – and how it ultimately revealed local officials’ disregard for, and even approval of, the violent methods of a local criminal gang.
The people murdered in Kushchyovskaya weren’t protesters – they were members of a family of farmers, and those unlucky enough to have been their guests. Even as the case shocked and outraged Russia, the investigation revealed that local elected officials had all but “blended” with local criminal structures, and random acts of terror in the countryside have been building up to a crescendo for many years. As experts pointed out at the time, Kushchyovskaya wasn’t at all unique when it came to the peculiar way in which government personnel and gangs are almost indistinguishable from one another in some parts of the country.
State television has meanwhile worked hard to delegitimise protest and demonise those who take part in it. Instability in Ukraine is routinely trotted out as an example of what protesters “really hope to achieve”.
The argument in favour of stability helped marginalise earlier mass protests that took place in Russia around the time that Putin was elected for a third non-consecutive term as president. “We don’t want any new turmoil!” read the placards of mostly older people who turned up to pro-Putin counter-protests at the time.
Since then, oil prices have taken a nosedive, the ruble devalued, Russia annexed Crimea and kicked off a shadow war in east Ukraine, while also getting involved in the conflict in Syria and being subjected to sanctions. Government budgets were cut, suspicion and aggression and the image of a Russia surrounded by vicious enemies were promoted on television, and a prominent dissident, Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down in view of the Kremlin.
Turmoil arrived anyway. And with it clearly came the sense that nowadays, an individual Russian has less to lose than before.
Taken separately, all of these factors – angry teenagers, law enforcement forces with little accountability, criminals in places of power and influence, a tolerance of violence, a climate of anger as promoted by the media and economic instability – may not mean much.
But look at them all together and you see a recipe for violence – for things going out of control randomly and quickly. And this is all besides the fact that Russia has an entire region, the North Caucasus region, that has exported and capitalised on violence for some time now.
Any protesters' deaths would be a blow to the Kremlin’s credibility and legitimacy. There is a reason why Putin was said to have been shocked and angered by Nemtsov’s murder. Putin has cultivated the image of a strong, masculine leader who is fully in control – random violence threatens this image.
More restrictive legislation, coupled with more aggressive domestic propaganda, is therefore likely on the cards. The idea is that if you discourage the people from taking to the streets in the first place, you are more likely to stave off any unpleasant incidents.
This plan worked for the Russian government in the wake of the earlier cycle of protests, but it remains to be seen whether it will work again.
What’s glaringly obvious is that a system that has one man as a consensus figure – and that figure, for the majority of Russians, is Putin – is insecure and inefficient to begin with.
It’s no accident that many members of Russia’s working class protest to Putin directly – they trust him and have zero trust in their local officials. But even if Putin retains his position until he’s 100 years old while continuing to retain his popularity, one person cannot run around putting out various fires.
And if Putin is able to pull a brilliant consensus figure of a successor out of a hat, the system’s flaws will remain, even though the tolerance for those flaws will decrease over time. The demise of the Soviet Union should have certainly taught everyone that lesson.
Insecurity and inefficiency, meanwhile, breed political unpredictability on all levels, widening the gulf between citizens and officials, and undermining the legitimacy of local government institutions.
To put it in plain terms, things in Russia are likely to get ugly before they get better. I would love to be proven wrong, of course, but would like to err on the side of pessimism for now.