Russian experts discuss the possibility of a nationwide wave of discontent caused by the current economic crisis. If the Russian protest movement does emerge, it would most likely be based around social and civic issues, not political issues.

Supporters of Russian opposition activist and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny gather holding red posters reading "Navalny" during unsanctioned protest in Manezhnaya Square in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014. Photo: AP

One of the topics discussed at the Gaidar Economic Forum was the potential rise of a new Russian protest movement caused by the current economic crisis. Off the political radar for most of 2014, the topic of social protests came to the fore at the end of the year, triggered by the collapse in global oil prices and a falling ruble.

Some experts at the Gaidar Forum argued that we should not consider the real possibility of an emergence of widespread social protests, at least in the short term. There is no reason to worry about the revival of the protest movement in Russia as long as the current economic difficulties come to an end. But if the crisis is perennial, it will erode living standards of people and threaten prosperity. In this case, people might take to the streets, said Prof. Robin J. Lewis of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA).

But what if the crisis does indeed last longer? Even though the majority of Russian society has been loyal to the Kremlin, supporting its policy decisions in Ukraine and coming together against sanctions, this might significantly change if the authorities do not justify this trust by paying more attention to Russia’s domestic problems.

Dmitry Oreshkin, Russian political expert, agrees. According to him, the long-term scenario of Russian development is gloomier from the point of view of social disorder, protests and great disappointment. During the Gaidar Forum he predicted that there would be “sporadic” and “moderate” protests. In some place they will be stronger or weaker, but “there will be a united protest movement.” 

Russia Direct asked other participants of the Gaidar Economic Forum to share their forecast about the future of Russia’s protests movement and opposition in 2015-2017.

Andrei Kolesnikov, board member of the Gaidar Foundation, journalist

There will be protests [in 2015-2017], but they will be social. Of course, social protests may turn into political protests, but it is hardly likely to happen in the foreseeable future, because these protests are likely to be local in nature or in socially marginalized districts and regions, like we saw with the protests of doctors in Moscow or the rally of mortgage borrowers.

[In late November 2014 Russians took to the streets to protests plans to lay off thousands of doctors and close hospitals in Moscow amidst the economic challenges. Late December saw the rally of foreign currency mortgage borrowers against banks in Moscow, with people calling on banks to fix their rates to the ruble because the rates for foreign currencies have more than doubled with recent volatility in the currency markets. – Editor’s note].

Such kinds of protests will take place in different regions depending on the social agenda. And again, they will not be political. Yet, political protests are possible in Moscow, but they won’t be serious and large-scale like those ones that happened in 2011-2012. But this is the short-term forecast for 2015. Over the mid- and long-term, there is no clarity.

Regarding Russia’s opposition, it has potential and power – [anti-corruption blogger and former candidate for the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections Alexei] Navalny is a very promising politician – but without the support and boost “from above,” the opposition won’t have administrative sources of consolidation and won’t be able to win the hearts and minds of people.

This support is essential for a normal democracy. In this case, there will be a normal protest movement with a positive agenda, not only with a negative one. The positive agenda means an attempt to introduce oneself as an active figure in the hierarchy of the authorities that proposes ways of resolving the problems. This, in turn, might lead to the appearance of some opposition centers, which don’t necessarily demand the immediate resignation of the president, but are satisfied with his gradual replacement.

Tatiana Vorozheikina, political analyst, specialist in Latin American and Russian studies

In my opinion, the protests will be local and social in nature. Some of them will be strong, some of them effective, but most of them will not be. I think one of the most serious grounds for such social movements might be the introduction of payments for major housing repairs, which would significantly increase citizens’ expenditures.

I don’t think that social movements will have a political context, as I don’t see a force that could transform the social discontent into a political protest. This is the main problem with the Russian opposition movement and the overall situation in the country. When such a force exists, it provides a good condition for a controlled democratic transition. Without it, the dissatisfaction grows and erupts into non-constructive forms.

In order for the opposition movement to be successful, we need to see the emergence of new political parties that won’t be dependent upon the figure of their leader. Navalny is the first and the most prominent candidate to lead the opposition, but I would really prefer him to be surrounded by such structures that would limit his personal ambitions and his role in the party, thereby making the emerging political structure more effective.

Unfortunately, at this point, there are no pre-conditions for the emergence of new political parties, firstly, because of the current chauvinist imperial discourse supported by the media and the majority of the people and, secondly, because almost all independent political activity was wiped clean by the authorities.

Leonid Gozman, democratic activist, visiting fellow of National Endowment for Democracy, lecturer at Moscow State University

The protest movement could be consolidated around economic questions, not around political questions. Even though there is now a very strong disappointment in Russian politics, people are ready to be active when the agenda is close to their everyday life. We have a small group of the people who are still sensitive to political questions – some of them protest against the annexation of Crimea and other political issues – but I do not expect their real consolidation on a nationwide basis.

Maybe, we will have some local protests in different areas, districts and regions of the country, but there will be no nationwide consolidation. However, it doesn’t mean that these processes [local and social protests] will not lead to the collapse of the system, because the system is rather weak now. It could even be destroyed by a relatively weak shock.

And if something happens in Moscow because of economic reasons or ethnic reasons (which is very important as well), so it could lead to disaster. I am not a fan of the system, but I think that its end will not lead immediately to democracy, freedom and happiness. Instead, it will lead to the chaos, that is much worse than in Ukraine.            

Regarding the Russian opposition, I believe not in political opposition, I believe in civic opposition, in civic society and volunteers. After all, our most effective opposition leader Alexei Navalny is moving in this way: He is not a political opposition activist, but rather, a social one. When he mentions any political topics, his popularity decreases immediately. So he is very popular and effective, but as long as he speaks about something which is not political. After all, [Navalny’s major agenda item] corruption is not a political problem - it is everybody’s problem. So, that’s why among his followers are different people, including those on the left and right, nationalists and liberals and a wide mix of everybody else.