Could 2017 be the year of the Russian Spring?
It should be profoundly worrying to the Kremlin that a young generation that only knows Putin and Medvedev as their leaders is not able to be controlled by propaganda and willing to demonstrate against the regime. Nonetheless, 2017 is pretty unlikely to end up in history books as the year of the Russian Spring.
During the last weekend of March, protests in several Russian cities drew large crowds of mostly teenagers to the streets to protest against corruption, with around 30,000 in Moscow. This might not seem like a huge turnout for a protest in the West. However, considering the harsh consequences these protesters might face, the turnout was quite significant.
The protests were organised by the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who recently released a 50-minute long video on YouTube about Dmitry Medvedev illegally amassing riches. The lawyer and former Moscow mayoral candidate is somewhat of a social media super star in Russia with his 750,000 followers on YouTube. In the recent video with nearly 18 million views, Navalny shows alleged properties belonging to prime minister Medvedev using appealing videography and impressive drone footage. He claims to have made the connection between the properties, which are owned by charitable trusts and shell companies, and the prime minister through information gained from his hacked iPhone in 2014. Through prime minister’s private email address, email@example.com, Navalny was able to reconstruct Medvedev’s online shopping sprees and establish a connection with Vladimir Dyachenko. Navalny claims that this oligarch is not only in charge of receiving Medvedev’s neon Nike trainers and latest tech gadgets but also of managing his secret properties. The trainers have since become a symbol of the protests, with teenagers throwing pairs of trainers on electricity cables.
The video doesn’t leave too much doubt that Medvedev amassed vast amounts of wealth that he couldn’t have possibly afforded with his official salary. More generally, it shows how shamelessly Russia’s political class has accumulated wealth while trying to convince the public that they are fighting against corruption. Medvedev in particular has tried to establish himself as a clean politician. The regime has used state-controlled media to create an image of a government that is actively combating corruption. Yet this contrasts starkly with reality and the younger, tech-savvy generation is very aware of this. Similarly to other countries, a lot of young Russians are relying less on traditional media as their source of information. Instead, they read blogs, social media, YouTube channels and other alternative media. They are very much aware of the current state of affairs and worried about the negative effects on their future. Navalny has been especially successful at using social media to harness these concerns and become a leading figure of this counter public.
Despite his prominent role as the leading opposition figure to the regime, he is not necessarily as important to the movement. Due to the nature of the internet, the activists are highly decentralised and flexible. Further, the internet (think VPN, Tor browser and encrypted instant messaging) offers them safe spaces that the government denies them in “real life”. Even though the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, local authorities often only offer remote locations to protest. In the recent protests, Navalny’s was officially allowed to protest, but only in the suburbs of Moscow, far away from public attention.
Many Russia observers and pundits were surprised about the high turnouts of the protests. More importantly, the harsh reactions by police forces across the country, show that the Russian government was also taken by surprise. Since 2011, the Kremlin has tighten its authoritarian grip on the country. NGOs, the free media, civil rights and the freedom of assembly have all been severely restricted and efforts have been made to censor the internet. Yet the bourgeoning counter public is overwhelming the Kremlin. Censoring the media and intimidating opposition figures are clearly not impressing the younger generation.
Nevertheless, Putin still enjoys high approval ratings of over 80%. Although these figures should always be taken with a pinch of salt in an autocratic regime. There are very few democratic methods to ventilate frustrations and grievances in today’s Russia. The teenage protesters claim that the Kremlin has lost touch with the average Russian. They aren’t alone. Miners have been protesting for months in Rustov-on-Don. Lorry drivers have been protesting since late March against motorway tolls and their worries being ignored by the government. However, there are competing narratives of what the protesters want to achieve. Most don’t actually want to overthrow the regime. The recent regime changes in Ukraine and the Arab world still linger in the back of their minds. Rather, they hope to publicly voice their concerns to make Putin aware of the hardships many Russians suffer because of corruption and government inefficiencies. According to this narrative, Putin is perceived as the carer of Russians. If they manage to make him aware of their problems he will surely help them. Others, especially the teenagers, don’t buy into this narrative. They claim that the entire political class is morally and financially corrupt and use the protest to ventilate their frustrations against the regime. Many school children have uploaded videos to YouTube and VKontakte, the most popular Russian language social media site, of them arguing with their teachers over corruption and Navalny’s movement. In a prominent video that went viral the teacher fails to convince the children why Navalny’s vision of a corruption free Russia is not a plausible alternative to the current regime.
This also shows that the high approval ratings are completely useless in an autocratic regime. Previous protests in similar settings have proven that only a small spark is needed to result in full-blown protests and regime change. For example, in Tunisia everybody was aware of widespread corruption and electoral manipulation, yet the self-immolation of a street vendor became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring. The Kremlin has reacted by arresting thousands of protesters and tightening its grip on the opposition. Navalny was arrested the moment he arrived at the protests, his offices were searched and his foundation’s crowdfunding page was closed down. This might not intimidate the hardcore protesters but it sends a clear sign to the rest.
Nonetheless, 2017 is very unlikely to end up in history books as the year of the “Russian Spring”. Firstly, the protesters fail to provide Russians with a credible alternative to the current system of Kleptocracy. Secondly, there is a lack of solidarity of the older generations with the young protesters. While many agree that corruption is a major problem in their country, they can still vividly remember the chaos in the 1990s. Moreover, the failure of the Ukrainian revolution and the Arab Spring (with the exception of Tunisia) to provide credible alternatives to the previous autocratic regimes is not making it easier for older Russians. They are also more likely to be influenced by propaganda shown on state-controlled media. Thirdly, the state has shown that it is willing to fight the protesters and opposition with all available means. Since 2011, the Kremlin has systematically reduced civil rights and weakened oppositional forces. While police brutality and propaganda weren’t able to put an end to the protests, further restricting the internet and social media could completely cut off the movement. For example, social media servers could be temporarily shut down or mobile phone networks locally suspended.
Nevertheless, despite the protests not continuing the next weekend, the movement shouldn’t be completely written off. It should be profoundly worrying to the Kremlin that a young generation that only knows Putin and Medvedev as their leaders is not able to be controlled by propaganda and willing to demonstrate against the regime. Another worrisome aspect is the fact that the Kremlin won’t be able to effectively fight corruption as it is deeply imbedded in the current regime. Putin failed to modernise the country, reform the economy and lessen the dependency on natural resource exports. Further crackdowns on civil rights and oppositional groups seems like the only possible option for the regime.