Things you should know about the recent protests in Russia

  • Russia
  • Creating a Resilient Organisation

Things you should know about the recent protests in Russia

Thanks to the media machine in the US, it would be hard to find someone who didn’t know about allegations that Russia interfered in the US electoral process. But understanding the scope of Russia’s other most dramatic development – the series of nationwide anti-corruption protests – is another matter. What do they mean for Russia’s political future? How serious are they? What do they mean for the business community?

So to cut through the media noise, here is our assessment of what you really need to know about these protests:

  • The protests will not threaten Vladimir Putin’s re-election. In the unlikely scenario that Putin should not decide to run, the protests also would not disrupt the election of a hand-picked successor (see article number one in this edition). The country’s leadership fully controls the national election machinery and can mobilise many more people for street rallies in support of Putin than the opposition can ever mobilise against his administration.
    What the recent protests did achieve, though, was to thwart the Kremlin’s vision of its candidate returning to office on a wave of international geopolitical success. The protests poked large holes in the narrative that the March 2018 vote will be a confirmation of the nation’s confidence in Putin. The Kremlin will now have to fight at home to protect the legitimacy of the next presidency, as it did six years ago.
  • Putin still does not seem to understand the genuine grievances behind the protests. President Putin, at least in his public remarks on the topic, continues to explain away street protests as triggered by external, foreign actors. Many lower-ranking officials follow this line themselves in how they deal with public protest. Even the most apolitical protests are attacked by the authorities as attempts on state order and national sovereignty, accusations that invite brutal police crackdowns. This, in turn, radicalises the protests: those coming out onto the streets are prepared to be beaten and, perhaps, even jailed, and, as such, are as well prepared to raise the stakes to make the authorities hear them.
  • Larger numbers of protests do not mean a higher impact. Russian public protests to date have been largely divided, with different protesting constituencies seeking to achieve objectives relating to local interests that have little resonance with the broader public (e.g. truckers’ rallies outside Moscow and in Dagestan, clashes of factory workers with Russian Guard officers in the Jewish Autonomous Region, Moscow residents protesting against the razing of their apartment buildings).
    While the number of protests is rising, they have so far failed to reach a critical mass and are unlikely to do so before the elections. There is no organisational infrastructure to turn these mass protests into political capital, lock in success and build on further.
    The response of the authorities to the various protesting groups is designed to undermine them. Among those tactics are pitting different groups against each other, co-opting their leaders, intimidating them with heavy-handed policing or lawsuits or paralysing them with overwhelming bureaucratic red tape.
  • The protests will not help the opposition obtain power any time soon, but they will be instrumental in returning public politics to Russia. Anti-corruption whistleblower Alexey Navalny, the last remaining major protest leader and the only self-declared presidential candidate so far, is seeking to create an organisational infrastructure. He is doing this physically, by opening a network of ‘regional headquarters’ for his presidential campaign, and electronically, by building a significant and robust following on the internet.
    But Navalny will be unable to utilise the protests as part of his presidential campaign. His recent conviction for fraud by a regional court bars him from being officially registered as a candidate, barring some unforeseen deus ex machina event. That said, the protests have made him the best-known public politician in Russia, and the authorities do have to cave in to him, at least by allowing his activists to rally in Moscow and other major Russian cities.

Pay less attention, then, to the growth of street protest activity – it will not prevent international companies from doing business in Russia. Think instead of whether the authorities will allow broader public participation in politics and will engage in dialogue. There have been some positive indications lately, including the public demonstrations against changes around the housing conflict in Moscow.

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