With the large-scale “Spring” rally scheduled for this weekend, there is an increasing feel of worry among Russia’s population about the future of the country. So what’s next and how will the Kremlin respond to the demand for change?
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, 38, walks to attend a rally in Manezhnaya Square in Moscow on December 30, 2015. Photo: AP
The opposition’s “March in March,” which is planned for the coming weekend of March 1, raises some obvious concerns about the potential for a wave of protests in Russia. However, it seems that the population is still passive and thus far not supportive of massive changes to the current political order.
The planned anti-war manifestation – “Spring” - could have been a major event of the coming spring. The idea to bring together political protesters (with their anti-war slogans) and social protesters (growing in size due to the deteriorating economic situation) could have been a success.
After all, the authorities did their best to raise the popularity of the opposition leaders. Nearly forgotten Alexey Navalny, anti-corruption whistleblower and vocal critic of the Kremlin, had the dust brushed off him as he was again transformed into a martyr.
Moreover, the officially permitted location of the March 1 rally was moved from downtown Moscow to the outskirts (Maryino district is now a regular place for nationalist marches), making it an additional challenge encouraging the opposition followers. The pro-government “Anti-Maidan” manifestation [the rally, organized by a notorious pro-Kremlin movement to prevent “color revolutions” in Russia – Editor’s note] was seen by many as a demonstration of staged support, making participation in “Spring” both a matter of ideological choice and a matter of principle.
Despite all these favorable factors for “Spring,” it is clear that, from an organizational and ideological point of view, the protests are not ripe yet. The authorities are now coping with a wave of micro-protests at some dying enterprises in the Russian regions, preventing major strikes and saving the companies from bankruptcy in the famous “manual mode.”
The recently published reports by major Russian sociological centers indicate that the overwhelming majority of the population does not want any large-scale protests that could spin out of control. People are sure that the authorities will be able to curb any unrest of that kind. More specifically, some polls show that none of the slogans set forth by the “Spring” organizers are inspiring enough to make the respondents join a popular movement against the government.
The only driver could be serious economic problems and a sharp decline in their well-being, which is yet not the case, even though the alarming sentiments are slowly increasing. The good thing about alarmism is that it can be a source of mobilization for the government, unlike simple discontent.
The evolution of demands is quite noteworthy as well. In the first decade of the 2000s, Russians were mostly concerned with survival and consumerism – this was only natural after the devastating crisis of the 1990s. Hence, the public contract with the state was based on the balance of rising welfare and political stability. Russia passed the 2008-2009 financial crisis more or less smoothly, so the balance was not ruined and the recovery was quick.
As a result, in 2011-2013 the priorities shifted – people began to think more about quality not quantity. This was the era of growing demands for systemic changes – greater political freedoms, fight against corruption, technological modernization, more effective governance and so on.
This desire for change and development suddenly found a new dimension in 2014. Since not much could be changed inside the country, the attention of the population was diverted by the Kremlin into the patriotic movement created by Russian victories in the international arena. In such a way, the Sochi Olympics, the incorporation of Crimea, the emergence of a new external enemy for “Fortress Russia” besieged by sanctions,” the pride of a great country challenging the existing world order dominated by the U.S. and its allies – all these events and feelings have become a sort of substitute used by the Kremlin to persuade the population that it is solving domestic problems and enhancing the efficiency of the institutions. Hence, the political ratings went up and even economic difficulties are taken for granted as an inevitable burden of sovereignty.
The major question is – what’s next? There are two scenarios set forth by some experts.
First, if the international tensions diminish and Russia eventually resolves its problems with the West, the country will gradually get back to the development agenda. The nation’s great power status will require economic (and not only rhetorical) support and, therefore, more efficient administration of the resources (partly voiced now by German Gref, a high-profile economist and head of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, for example).
This will obviously mean that the political ratings will get back to normal (i.e. from 85 percent to 55 percent approval ratings) and the government will have to work hard to meet the demand for change rather than pursue the current “chief accountant” policy. Taking into account the developments of the last 10 years and the human resources potential of the current elite, this dream of “working government” will hardly come true – nobody there is accustomed to fast moves.
The second option is much more probable. If the global tensions are frozen, the country will have to adapt to its shaky economy. And people will get back to their survival and consumerist values rather than seek progress. This, of course, will lead to stagnation – which after all could not be that bad, if it did not clash with great power ambitions. It is impossible to keep the global status without leading, without the spirit of development and permanent sophistication. In a few years, this contradiction may have much more serious ramifications and stimulate the discontent from both ends - economic and ideological.
Therefore, at the current stage the protests are not dangerous – they are poorly organized and they lack stable supporters. The micro-strikes do not pose a significant threat to the authorities. However, in the long run, Russia will have to make a choice in the “development-stagnation” dilemma and in both cases it will be much harder task for the authorities to steer the demands in the right direction.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.