Russia was in uproar on March 26 after tens of thousands of protesters in more than 80 cities hit the streets to condemn corruption, targeting in particular Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Could this be the start of the long predicted coloured revolution in Russia?
The unsanctioned protests were called by anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has been touring the country. He was quickly arrested but police struggled to take him to the police station after an angry crowed surrounded the bus and tried to free him.
“I’m happy that so many people came out (onto the streets) from the east (of the country) to Moscow,” Navalny said, moments before he was detained, reports Reuters. He later tweeted from the back of the bus, calling on the crowd to continue with its “peaceful protests”.
Medvedev’s spokeswoman called the allegations “propagandistic attacks” unworthy of detailed comment. Navalny called the rallies to specifically protest against Medvedev’s wealth. Navalny recently released an in-depth investigation that exposed the PM’s personal fortune, including a duck house in the garden of his mansion, leading many protestors to come to the rally with ducks. More than 700 people were detained in Moscow alone, according to civil rights watchdog OVD-INFO.
Many protestors came to the rallies with ducks, mocking the prime minister’s duck house in his garden.
These are by far the largest non-sanctioned demonstrations since those of 2011, when hundreds of thousands came to the streets to protest against fixed Duma elections that year.
But the circumstance have changed dramatically since then. In 2011 the crowds were much larger, but they were older too. Many of the participants in the 2011 demonstrations were in their 30s or 40s. They were Russia’s middle class, which has ironically been the biggest beneficiaries of “Putin’s Russia”, where incomes have soared over 7-fold in real terms.
Their main objection to President Vladimir Putin was their exclusion from the political process that runs the country after the party of power United Russia won a clear majority and effectively took complete control of the government. The life of the middle class was comfortable. Putin’s popularity was predicated on the prosperity he brought but the population had reached the point where their life was comfortable enough. What they wanted was not more money but more say in how the country is run, what services were on offer and their quality. They were fed up with being told what to do and expected to buckle under. If the authorities drove a motorway through a beloved forest they wanted the local government to listen to their complaints. They wanted the government to be more representative and responsible.
The latest protests are fundamentally different as people are suffering in a very real way. Real incomes have been falling for years and while they are now growing a little, real disposable income (the money you have left after you take out food and utilities) is still contracting. The quality of life is degrading.
Maybe the most noticeable feature of these protests is the fact that they have been held in all the major regional cities and even the smaller ones.
That didn’t happen in 2011 where Moscow saw a massive turnout whereas there were at best some small muted demonstrations in the regions. Moscow remains the intellectual capital and most politically progressive, as its residents are the most sophisticated and westernised of Russia’s population thanks to the significantly higher wages on offer in Moscow. The political nature of the protest in 2011 had much less appeal to those in the regions where life is harder and more basic.
This time round Navalny’s call to action has a broad-based appeal. As bne IntelliNews has already speculated in earlier opeds, if there is going to be a revolution it will start in the regions. While there has been a mild economic recovery, it is only true at the macro economic level. Many regional areas are close to bankruptcy as some debt repayments are now equal to the entire regional budget. A few years ago in his “May decrees” Putin ordered significant increases to salaries and social payments, but as many regions don’t have oil exports they have to live off their income and profit tax collections and so cannot afford to increase salaries and social payments. The government has been trying to help, but it has not made much progress.
Opposition leader Navalny in the back of a police bus
On the ground the difference is visible. Food has increased its share of total spending to over 55% of monthly outgoings, up from a low of about 35% in the boom years, as consumers cut all but the bare essentials from their shopping baskets. The squeeze that shoppers are feeling has become so acute that Magnit, Russia’s biggest supermarket chain that has the bulk of its stores in the small cities and villages of the hinterland, has seen its sales slow dramatically in the last year, while those of its rivals, like X5, that have most of their sales in the big cities, have shot passed them.
The antipathy the protesters feel is born of real economic pain and suffering that is growing. The age of the crowd has fallen according to observers with a lot more 20-somethings out on the streets this weekend, an age cohort who were noticeable by their absence in 2011.
Navalny’s timing has been very good. After the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov two years ago, Navalny has been left as probably the only opposition leader who could mount a challenge to Putin in the 2018 presidential elections. He has struggled until now to excite much support amongst ordinary voters as he has not presented much of a platform other than “not Putin”. Indeed, his nationalistic tendencies mirror Putin’s main line at the moment and Navalny even supported Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. But his anti-corruption theme is resonating more than ever as the population feel the standard of living gains of the last 17 years start to melt away.
Will the demonstrations reach critical mass and turn into a colour revolution similar to the EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine three years ago? It seems unlikely. Indeed the chaos that followed the change of regime in Ukraine has been a factor to dissuade Russians from revolutionary changes. Moreover, the Kremlin has effectively contained the opposition, which has also largely discredited itself with its constant infighting and bickering.
However, corruption is the one theme that could unite the entire population even if Navalny does struggle with a broad economic and civic platform. It was, after all, the issue that ultimately lead to the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.