Peaceful and Violent Protest Trends in Russia
Tallinn, Estonia, 2010-11-02
Rise of Street Politics in Russia
- “Street politics” re-emerged in Russia in 2004 as a result of increasingly authoritarian policy of the government, that allowed no room for institutionalized forms of political struggle or advocacy (like elections, legal mechanisms or using independent media).
- Street protests received a huge boost after the Orange Revolution of 2004. For the first time, the democratic opposition saw that it could eventually win the struggle. The regime, too, began to pay serious attention to public protests, apparently considering them the biggest threat to its power.
- Protest movement has generally been on the rise since then, compared to the pre-2004 period.
Government Violence against Protesters
- The vast majority of public protests in Russia was (and is) largely non-violent. Cases of attacks against the police or property were very rare and were perceived as “provocations.”
- Violence, however, was used against the protesters by the government and pro-Kremlin groups.
- Many protests were banned by authorities, often under little or no legal pretext.
- Riot police was used widely against peaceful protesters. Interestingly, riot police rarely use shields in Russia because they know that they will not face resistance.
- Sometimes youth pro-Kremlin groups (like Nashi, Young Russia, Young Guard etc.) were used to organize provocations or fights at protests.
- When the job was too dirty even for them, anonymous groups of hooligans were hired, most often from the ranks of football fans. They were attacking protesters and members of opposition at peaceful rallies, offices and elsewhere.
Case Study: Dissenters Marches
- Social unrest of early 2005 was caused by a new law that replaced many privileges of pensioners (like free use of public transportation) with material compensation (inadequate, as protesters said). The protests were semi-successful: they made the Government change the law and return most of the privileges, but failed to achieve any other demands (like resignation of then-Minister of Social Development).
- In December 2006, the most massive and well-known wave of street protests of the last decade began: Dissenters’ Marches.
- Dissenters’ Marches were organized by the Other Russia, which comprised of Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front, Mikhail Kasyanov’s People’s Democrat Union, Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party as well as smaller groups like Oborona youth movement. This was a “non-systemic opposition” coalition (as opposed to the “systemic” quasi-opposition parties like the Communist Party, SPS, and Yabloko).
- Dissenters’ Marches didn’t have a single demand or theme. Instead, they used a mixture of political and social demands that appealed to a broad audience, from liberal intelligentsia to moderate nationalists to socialists. Despite the difference in political views, participants accepted and tolerated each other. What united them was the “narrow” and relatively vague program of the Marches: end of Putin’s rule, establishment of a democratic regime, more social justice, real anti-corruption measures.
- Dissenters’ Marches were different from most other actions in that they never compromised or gave in to pressure. Most of them took place even despite being banned completely or partially (e.g., people were allowed to gather but not to actually march).
- The two biggest and most successful Dissenters’ Marches took place in Spring 2007 in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Riot police and army were brought in huge numbers and used against protesters, but couldn’t stop them.
- These large protests remained completely peaceful and managed not only to win public support but also to force the government to some small concessions. E.g., since then, riot police weren’t acting so brutally.
- Unfortunately, beginning June 2007 the Other Russia coalition began to disintegrate, make more tactical mistakes. As a result, scale and effectiveness of Dissenters’ Marches began to fall. The last big protest was held in November 2007.
Case Study: Strategy 31
- The latest series of protests is called Strategy 31 after the 31st article of the Russian Constitution that guarantees the right of peaceful assembly. These demonstrations took place in many cities but, most importantly, at Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square on every 31st day of every month that has this day.
- Organizers persistently followed all the necessary procedures in order to make ban of the action technically illegal or at least obviously absurd. Participants were strictly non-violent not to give the police a pretext for arrests.
- This created a dilemma for the authorities: if they banned and dispersed the action, they would show that there is no real right to criticize the government; if they allowed it to happen, they would look “weak.”
- The protests began in July 2009 and until October 2010, all of them were banned by the authorities under different pretexts and dispersed by the riot police.
- Beginning with as few as some 150-200 participants, Strategy 31 protests reached about 2,000 participants in recent months, despite growing figures of arrests.
- Strategy 31 managed to win some sympathy with the public. Levada Center polls showed that 37% supported Strategy 31 while only 15% were against them (almost a half preferred not to answer)--despite all the government propaganda.
- Strategy 31 was successful in showing the undemocratic nature of the current regime. From March 2009 to July 2010 the number of people who believed that the government is too harsh against protesters rose from 18% to 28% (only 6% said, it was too soft with them in July 2010). 85% said that the authorities should listen to the protesters while 56% admitted that the protests are in fact ignored.
- Some well-known politicians as well as apolitical figures supported the movement including Boris Nemtsov, Yury Shevchuk, Katya Gordon etc. Even some public servants called for the government to change its attitude, like the ombudsman Vladimir Lukin.
- Vladimir Putin who normally pretends to ignore all opposition demonstrations had to comment on the Strategy 31 campaign several times. In one of his angry comments, he said that those who failed to get a permission from authorities to protest shall be “beaned” with clubs.
- However, Moscow and federal authorities began to privately seek compromise with Strategy 31 organizers, offering alternative venues and formats for the action. Organizers insisted on their right to gather at Triumfalnaya Square on their conditions. Bans and beatings continued.
- On October 31, 2010, a Strategy 31 protest was for the first time allowed to happen at Triumfalnaya Square. The campaign could celebrate a victory.
- Paradoxically, this victory caused split between “moderates” and “radicals” among organizers of the action. However, the action itself was a stunning success: it gathered at least 3,000 participants, was non-violent and dramatic.
- Still, the fate of the Strategy 31 remains largely unclear at the moment.
- In fact, there is more to non-violent protest in Russia than just big demonstrations dispersed by the police. There are many other forms including officially allowed rallies, flashmobs and online campaigns.
- One such campaign worth mentioning is called Blue Buckets because its participants put blue buckets on rooftops of their cars (or just anywhere) to mock the bureaucrats who use flashlights to gain privilege in traffic and to violate traffic rules. It started as a flashmob organized online but grew into some sort of a movement that also supports initiatives like Strategy 31.
- Even now, two years after the last Dissenters’ March, they remain the famous protest action that half of the population is aware of according to the Levada Center’s survey of July 2010--it’s even more than for Nashi’s actions that receive huge attention of state media. Blue Buckets are, too, quite well-known (the survey was conducted in the peak of that campaign) and are also popular because of their perceived peaceful, even childish style. Strategy 31 is not as well-known (not outside Moscow, I presume).
- Another development of 2009-2010 is alarming: non-state actors, including opposition groups, are beginning to use or advocate violence.
- While political violence has long been used by Neo-Nazi groups, it was never accepted by the mainstream opposition until recently.
- But on the other extreme, Radical Left began to use violent methods about 2 years ago.
- Since then, several cases of riots and attacks against pro-Kremlin groups and newspapers occurred.
- The biggest riot took place in July 2010 in the town of Khimki near Moscow. Antifa and anarchists attacked the city hall with Molotov cocktails, flares, and rubber-bullets guns. According to them, they also attacked several police cars as they were retreating from the site. A few people were arrested and charged with organizing this action, but by now all of them have been released.
- In September 2010 the so-called “art group Voyna” (War), well-known for their controversial actions, turned over several police cars in St. Petersburg. They even claimed that police officers were inside two cars, which apparently was not true.
- The most shocking case of political violence against the police (outside Northern Caucasus) was in the Far East city of Vladivostok. The so-called Primorye Guerillas, a group of five to seven young men, allegedly killed four and injured at least two police officers in May-June 2010. To catch them, a military operation was launched. Eventually, two “guerillas” killed themselves and five were arrested.
- According to Levada Center, every fourth Russian citizen “approved of” or “sympathized with” the actions of the “guerillas.” One-third of those surveyed said that “this had been a group of people driven to despair by lawlessness and abuse of the police,” further 13% called them “popular avengers” against “the corrupt authorities.” At liberal Echo Moskvy radio, three-fourths listeners (and more than a half of their Website visitors) said that they would help the “guerillas” if were asked to; 62% also supported the Khimki riot.
- Russia’s protest culture has long been mostly non-violent with some success stories.
- The success of non-violent protests was limited by the generally low effectiveness of the civil society, unresponsive and repressive political system.
- Disappointment in non-violent methods as a means to achieve regime change as well as the government repression against non-violent protesters caused some groups to look more favorably at violent alternatives.
- Lack of successes of violent protests is partially compensated for with adrenaline rushes and public support that accompany such protests.
- Violent protests are in fact more comfortable for the government as they give a legal and legitimate opportunity to use force against protesters. The government is well-prepared for an armed struggle, with army, tanks, secret services on its side. The opposition can’t win an open violent fight against the state.
- There is no “antidote” against violence in Russia; on the contrary, there has been a long history of political terror as a means of “solving” conflicts.
- Thus, there is a significant chance of more violent outbreaks in the near future.
- Escalation of violence can cause unpredictable consequences: from a general crackdown on the whole opposition movement (including a non-violent part of it) to a civil war.
- Even in the unlikely case of the opposition winning a violent conflict, it will probably lead to another form of authoritarianism as well as add to misery of people, harm the economy and make the political and social system even less democratic.
- It is not yet late to stop the dangerous trend of legitimizing violence. To do that, protest movement leaders and activists must develop zero tolerance to violence, even against violent political opponents.
- Broad discussion of the issues of violent and non-violent forms of resistance is necessary within the civil society groups as well as among the general population.
- A realistic non-violent strategy of achieving democracy has to be developed and made known to the public in order to make violent means unappealing.