This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Why the Russian government remains resilient in the face of popular protest
Last November, an unprecedented protest movement took over a number of Russia’s roads, blocking highways and raising speculation about the potent threat faced by the Putin regime. Long-distance truckers, facing the prospect of paying exorbitant amounts of road tax, threatened to block Moscow unless the new tax was scrapped. Their demands touched on all the main grievances expressed in contemporary Russia and Putin’s rule in particular: dilapidated roads, corruption (the new tax was commissioned to be collected by Putin-connected oligarchs, the Rotenbergs, who are under Western-imposed sanctions), and the Kremlin’s persistent refusal to take the interests of its population into account in any major decision. With Russia’s economy in a downward spiral, the trucker protest fueled all sorts of revolutionary scenarios, with Foreign Affairs asking if their strike could “usher in a Russian Spring” and pro-Kremlin parliamentarians warning of a Western-sponsored Maidan.
Less than three months later, thanks to the threat of repression and a few concessions – like a significant decrease in the penalty for not paying the tax – the protests, though still taking place here and there, have diffused and no longer pose any real threat to the Kremlin. It’s business as usual, with Russia’s government turning its focus back to the more persistent threat of its tanking economy.
It’s not the first time that a significant protest movement in Russia has panned out this way, and it raises important questions about why Russian protests can never really gain the critical mass to trigger regime change, especially as Russia prepares for parliamentary elections this fall. The Kremlin may warn about a Ukraine-style Maidan taking place in Russia, but in Ukraine public demonstrations have succeeded in toppling the government twice in a decade. In Russia, they have never come close. Why is this the case?
The Protest Playbook
Every once in a while – and quite often coinciding with the approaching New Year – a nascent street protest movement gains momentum in Russia and swells in numbers to the extent that its leaders and observers start mulling the possibility that it could pose a direct challenge the current Kremlin regime – that this protest is, historically speaking, the “big one” that will wrest power away from the elite that currently holds it.
The initial trigger for the popular protest can be specific economic or social demands, relatively innocuous and apolitical that spiral into a direct challenge to the ruling government after resonating with a particular mood in Russia’s non-parliamentary opposition. As opposition leaders – usually ones with no representation in Russia’s parliament – lend their voices to the protesters’ demands, a feedback loop develops that helps the protest numbers swell. Planned rallies become more political in nature and territorially closer to the Kremlin. Speculations in the independent and Western media about this being the “big one” reach their peak and the Kremlin panics, unleashing repressions here and concessions there, with the balance varying depending on who’s protesting. All of this coincides with a heady mix of state TV propaganda warning about a Western-sponsored Maidan. Repression and concessions are showered on the dissenters and the populace, and then…
And then nothing. The protests themselves may even continue in similar numbers (or they may dwindle to nothing). But their role, once the Kremlin has sized them up and tweaked its general strategy for dealing with them, becomes locked and entrenched. Most of all, nothing – aside from the repressions and/or concessions implemented by the Kremlin – changes. The protesters who took to the street demanding agency remain without it, just as they were in the beginning. They blend into the general backdrop of protests in Putin’s Russia.
Many of the major movements during Putin’s rule have followed this general playbook. The biggest – when over 100,000 people demonstrated for free elections on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Prospekt in 2011-2012 – differed only in size and in the scope of the Kremlin’s response: they arguably triggered a fundamental “u-turn” by the Kremlin towards a nationalist, revanchist policy in 2012-2014, which can hardly be seen as an achievement on the part of the liberal demonstrators.
It is easy to understand the Kremlin’s fears and general expectations that protests are a potent instrument of regime change, especially after the experience of colour revolutions in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Arab Spring. Russia has many things in common with the countries in these regions, namely the weakness of institutions and the instability of a lawful system of transfer of power, which indeed make such regimes vulnerable to popular protest, where Western regimes with deeply entrenched democratic institutions are not. But there is something unusual in Russia’s case: while its government, considering its lack of institutions, is indeed vulnerable to mass protests, those protests on their own lack the potency to accomplish real change.
The scale and efficacy of government repressions is not enough to explain this lack, primarily because such repressions are not unique to Russia, but a typical feature of other authoritarian regimes, where protests have endured and been successful anyway.
The widespread idea that the Russians are passive and reluctant to protest is not a completely valid explanation either: labor protests, for instance, are on the increase, but that does not necessarily spell a looming colour revolution.
Instead, opposition movements and even the most organised protest groups are beset by the same ills that plague Russian society as a whole: lack of agency and lack of the kind of social capital that could amount to useful leverage against the political elite.
Lack of agency
The objective of protests ,for many, is often to direct a cry of desperation at the government to change a specific thing about their lives. Studies on how protesters view their own roles conducted by Samuel Greene in his 2014 book, Moscow in Movement, as well as my own interviews with demonstrators in various movements across Russia, point to a common theme: the protesters describe what they are doing as a “last resort” and an act of desperation when a certain threshold has been reached in the government’s treatment of its populace. Greene argues that “political elites, by structuring the political arena, exert a decisive influence on the patterns of collective behavior that make up civil society.”
There is also evidence that Russia’s federal government relies on protests as an indicator of the relative success of this or that regional leader and uses those indicators in decisions on reappointments.
Taken together, such a scenario places protesters, however well organised, in a role where they lack agency from the very beginning. From the standpoint of the government, instigating mass repressions is costlier than giving in to some of the demands halfway, like lowering penalties for failure to pay a toll. Protest movements, however risky, in many cases themselves become instrumentalised by the state. If there is any social capital, it goes one way, as the government tries to preemptively co-opt protest movements for its own uses.
Lack of Social Capital
But perhaps more important are the organisational limitations of protesters to enact change once they have brought out enough people into the streets. As the Bolotnaya protests have shown, a movement in Russia is only as successful as its turnout numbers, and beyond that it has little organisational leverage. A case in point is the short-lived Coordination Council of the Russian Opposition, an elected, non-government body created in the fall of 2012 on the back of the Bolotnaya and Sakharov protests. The council’s function was limited to agreeing on demands and organising demonstrations. It was disbanded just a year later, following a number of internal clashes and failure to agree on policy. Its only instrument of leverage was holding protests. As such, it proved incapable of achieving any constructive change, such as reforms in government policy or helping get several dozen incarcerated political prisoners released after the protests.
Failure to agree on common aims and failure to achieve incremental, constructive goals is no criticism of the sincerity or effort of the opposition. Instead, in the case of the coordination council, it is evidence of a crucial pattern in Russian society: atomisation, lack of outreach, and, hence, little capability for meaningful negotiation with the authorities. This is not surprising: of the 45 elected members of the council, consisting of opposition leaders and cultural figures, only one, Gennady Gudkov, was an acting parliamentarian, but even he was stripped of his parliamentary mandate on trumped up fraud charges.
Lack of parliamentary representation (aside from the rare instances when the usually tame Communist Party picks up on protesters’ demands after the fact) and lack of connections to key government officials are one of the main limitations of interest groups or opposition movements whose only recourse is street protest. Putin’s Kremlin has made consistent efforts to isolate and separate opposition groups to keep them out of parliament. Yet opposition groups themselves have demonstrated tendencies towards isolation, cliquishness, and a distrust of others – a key factor in preventing them from forming coalitions which could help them get into parliament.
Echoing similar complaints, one opposition activist close to the council told me, during the election, of deep suspicions about collaboration with the authorities, making negotiation or the establishment of any useful rapport with state officials virtually impossible, especially for newer members (opposition members with higher status had the privilege, she said, of dealing with authorities without being labeled a Kremlin agent).
The disconnect between the population, civil society and the political elites means that popular revolt can only have a limited impact. However, despite achieving little of its own accord, it could have the potential to set off regime change from within the Kremlin: as various elites vie for power, some will inevitably take better advantage than others of the general sense of instability that accompanies a persistent, millions-strong demonstration and especially of the mounting pressure it would place on the incumbent ruler, leading to a palace coup. While acting as a trigger, however, the protests themselves would still have extremely limited leverage on whatever new government emerges. Such a scenario might change the state representation, but would not fix the disconnect that keeps civil society agentless.
Anna Arutunyan is a Moscow-based writer and journalist, formerly of @themoscownews. She is the author of The Putin Mystique and contributed two fiction pieces to ECFR’s 2014 publication“Russia’s Pivot to Eurasia”. She has just returned from a George F. Kennan fellowship at the Wilson Center in Washington.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.