From protests to the super years of Russian politics

Jussi Lassila,
Senior Research Fellow,
Finnish Institute of International Affairs,
the EUʼs Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme,

2019 was a year of protests in Russia. A total of 1,443 protests were registered in Russia in January-September, and their growth was steady throughout the year. Protests were related political rights, arbitrariness of authorities, landfills and ecological issues as well as multiple problems in healthcare. In general, it is difficult to find a sector of society where no protests have been or will be seen in the next few years.

In the light of the events of 2018-2019, many researchers have come to the conclusion that a qualitative change is under way in Russian society. Many of the available opinion statistics support these views. About 60% of citizens call for comprehensive societal changes to the present, the demand for more liberal values from the authoritarian present ​​is on the rise, attitudes towards the West have improved, while trust in the state television has declined significantly in the last two years. The Internet is becoming an increasingly important information channel, which is much more difficult to control than traditional media.

On the other hand, more pessimistic estimates underline the Kremlinʼs ability to cope with difficulties, especially in the light of the regimeʼs former difficulties. Many previous protests have demonstrated the weakness of civil society in terms of their further organization and coordination. Protests are unable to become structures that could mobilize citizens, largely because of citizensʼ general lack of trust in all societal organizations. In turn, the authoritarian regime is able to keep potential threats in a state of weakness with relatively little resources.

At the same time, the Kremlinʼs ever-tightening grip on the civil society shows that the regime is increasingly aware of the threats around it. Although the overall number of demonstrators is relatively small, the Kremlinʼs concerns are related to the number of protests, the prevalence and the range of themes. In other words, the regime is aware of their apparent potential and breeding ground. What was significant about the 2019 protests was the partial victories they achieved. The widespread protest seen in Yekaterinburg in the spring halted the construction of a cathedral planned for the cityʼs central square. The loud organization of the Russian independent media field against the arbitrary arrest of journalist Ivan Golunov led to the dismissal of charges against him. Over a yearʼs protesting against the plan to build a massive landfill for the waste of Moscow in Sheis in the Arkhangelsk region led Moscowʼs decision-makers to look for other alternatives, at least for now, for capitalʼs worsening garbage problem.

For 2020 and beyond, these developments give some hope for a stronger civil society. They also indicate that the regime is not completely indifferent to citizensʼ demands. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has not shown any degree of flexibility on those issues where the requirements are related to citizensʼ political rights guaranteed by the current Constitution. Brutality of authorities against demonstrators in Moscow in the summer of 2019 was a clear indication of such inflexibility. A new phenomenon was the fact that brutal measures mobilized thousands of people on the streets to protest against them, and the majority of the Russian population saw authoritiesʼ reactions in critical light. A new type of solidarity is emerging.

In this respect, the beginning of the new decade does not promise peaceful times for Russian politics. The regime may consent to relatively many demands here and there, but is not ready to allow any structural changes, that is, to allow real decision-making for lower levels. This equation is impossible in the medium, perhaps even in the short term. Putinʼs vertical delegation of tasks to the lower levels does not work. Regional authorities are in many areas incapable of solving problems that are accumulating ahead of them. Allowing citizensʼ political participation in order to ease the popular dissatisfaction would be the quickest and best solution. However, the liberalization of the political system is out of question, even at the local level. On the contrary, the Kremlin is increasingly seeing local demands politically threatening and has tightened its grip on regions even further.

As a result, the Kremlin-controlled party system is in crisis as the 2021 Duma election approaches. The credibility of all four Duma parties – the United Russia, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Fair Russia – is eroding further and the number of consciously passive electorate (24% in December 2019) is close to that of the Kremlinʼs rubber stamp, United Russia. It is very likely that the party field will see changes as the Kremlin prepares for the 2021 election. The Duma election will be, in turn, a touchstone to the Kremlinʼs most important challenge: the maintenance of the current status of the elite around Putin after the presidential election in 2024.

Author’s note: This paper was submitted on 9 January 2020.


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