Three years after the May 6, 2012 opposition protests at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, what are the main lessons the Russia authorities and opposition should have learned?

Russian police officers detain opposition leader Ilya Yashin, center, outside a court room in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, where hearings started against opposition activists detained on May 6, 2012 during a rally at Bolotnaya Square. Photo: AP

The events of May 6, 2012 at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow were the culmination of the White Ribbon protest movement that had been growing for six months as a reaction to the abuse of power during the State Duma elections.

If we compare the protest movement of 2011-2012 with the first Russian revolution of 1905, then the demonstrations on Bolotnaya Square and Prospekt Sakharova in December 2011 can be seen as the equivalent of the October political strikes, which extracted the October Manifesto from the tsar granting Russian citizens civil rights and freedoms.

As to the events of May 6, 2012, they were more reminiscent of the Moscow Uprising in December 1905, led by left-wing radicals in the hope of triggering a revolution. At that time, the Bolsheviks, Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and anarchists incorrectly evaluated the deployment of forces and gave the authorities the pretext for a counteroffensive.

The Achilles heel of the White Ribbon protesters

The Achilles’ heal of the White Ribbon movement [the protestors’ symbol became a white ribbon – Editor’s note] was the narrowness of its geographic and social base. The protest was concentrated mainly in Moscow. Even in St. Petersburg, which glories in its revolutionary tradition, it attracted a significantly smaller number of protestors – a couple of thousand as opposed to 100,000 in the capital. In the remaining cities with populations greater than a million, the protests did not exceed more than a hundred people.

The social composition of the movement turned out to be very limited. On the whole they were members of the educated class, students and the so-called “creative class” whose success is the result of the introduction of digital technology. This, naturally, explains the localization of the protests in large cities.

However,there was a wide political spectrum among the protestors – including liberals, socialists and nationalists. As a direct result of this broad spectrum, it was impossible to form a positive political program. Everything was reduced to negative demands: free political prisoners, dismiss perpetrators of election fraud, recognize that the elections were illegitimate, change the electoral laws, etc.

Another consequence of the political diversity was the absence among the protestors of any plan of action. They understood the recklessness of calls made by opposition activist Eduard Limonov, the leader of The Other Russia party, to storm the Kremlin and the State Duma but were unable to suggest any alternative. All they were able to do was continue organizing marches and demonstrations, attracting more and more people in the hope that sooner or later, the numbers would translate to quality and the Kremlin would hand over power.

Counterattack from the Kremlin

Meanwhile, the Kremlin, which from the very beginning was genuinely frightened by the unusually high number of protests, came to its senses and prepared a counterattack. Especially since the dead-end tactics of the protestors had already been discovered as part of the protest on March 5,  2012.

This March 5 protest was dedicated to the results of the presidential elections, which took place the previous day. The demonstration still had a lot of people, but in the voices of those making the speeches, there was a sense of uncertainty – they simply did not know what to do next.

In these circumstances as part of the process for preparing for the planned demonstration for May 6, ambitiously called “The March of the Millions,” a group of left-wing radicals led by Sergei Udaltsov came to the fore. Their views on the potential for the protest were more reckless and generally typical of left-wing radicals. They were convinced that the main failing with the White Ribbon movement was the lack of radicalism or “revolutionary” fervor.

The remaining organizers of the protest, including the liberals and the non-party civil activists, did not share these views, but did not enter into an argument with the left – as a result of lacking any alternative options. They simply stepped aside, giving Udaltsov and his confederates a free hand.

The latter clearly worked on plans, which were well known from the 1990s and foresaw various street clashes with the police. (It is unclear, what they were expecting since in the 1990s, this led to nothing more than mass arrests of the demonstrators.)

The authorities for their part, judging from what followed, were preparing specifically for this scenario. Furthermore, they were prepared to escalate the situation. It was no accident that the negotiations for the route of the demonstration, which had been previously quickly agreed upon, this time reached a dead-end. Furthermore, even the agreed upon route was breached by the police, deliberately causing a blockage at the final stage of the route, just as the columns of marchers reached Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow.

Both sides were preparing for a confrontation and it concluded just as they expected, with the mass arrests of the protesters. This was followed by everything else: the accelerated adoption of the State Duma’s aggressive laws, the closure of the last independent television channels, and the blocking of opposition Internet resources. In other words, the “revolution” was replaced by an equal and opposite “reaction.”

Russian protest movement: Dead or alive? 

For the past three years, much has changed in the country, including the way society relates to the protest movement. In 2012, the majority of the population responded, at the very least, neutrally. Today the White Ribbon movement is the equivalent of a national “fifth column” and is regularly spurned by the state-controlled media.

However, this does not mean that they have no prospects. As shown by the demonstration in September 2014 (the “March for Peace”) and March 2015 (the march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered on Feb.27, near the Kremlin), the number of the regime’s opponents has not diminished – at least not in Moscow. Meanwhile, the aggressive Kremlin propaganda works against them. However, it is precisely the aggressiveness of this propaganda that could eventually be the reason for its fleeting effectiveness.

People cannot always maintain a fevered emotional state, sooner or later they get tired. Even today, many of those who supported the annexation of the Crimea and the war in southeastern Ukraine are beginning to show signs of fatigue. It is no wonder that the joke “So what’s with the Ukrainians?” has recently become popular as a reaction to attempts of the mainstream media to avoid talking about the pressing problems of the country and shift attention to Ukraine.

Tomorrow, this fatigue – especially if the economic crisis deepens – could escalate into open anger, and then the opposition will once more have a chance to regain public support. However, for this to happen, its representatives must learn the lessons from the previous failure.

The lessons from Bolotnaya 2012

Firstly, the protest movement needs to extensively broaden its social base. The intelligentsia, students and “creative class” as a base is good, but it is small. Support is necessary from a much broader stratum of society. With all of them, it’s necessary to speak in a language that they understand on subjects that interest them, which with 90 percent probability, will be daily life and survival during economic crisis.

Secondly, even if life forces them into contact with radicals, this does not mean that they should yield even an inch when it comes to charting their political future. As was demonstrated on May 6, 2012 this will lead to no good. Radicals are prepared at any moment to drag other people into their irresponsible adventures.

Thirdly, it is necessary to plan political action. The plan may be good or bad, but it must be a plan, and furthermore it must be one that can be adjusted while it is being executed. The absence of a plan forces people just to drift. This is a current that will carry them where it wants, rather than where they need to go. And, moreover, the opposition must discuss this plan before it is actually needed.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.