On May 6, one year after clashes between demonstrators and police in Bolotnaya Square, a new rally took place in Moscow that showed that the core of the protest movement in Russia has stabilized at 20,000 to 30,000 people. These numbers are considerably higher than those that rallies attracted before 2011, but they are not sufficient to influence the Kremlin. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the situation in which Russia’s nonsystemic opposition finds itself today.
Since the beginning of 2012, after a certain decrease in protest activity, the Russian nonsystemic opposition has faced many different challenges that have made it harder for it to be politically effective. These challenges—some of them dynamic, some static—will probably hinder the opposition’s activity for as long as Vladimir Putin’s regime remains stable. Opposition leaders should learn to work in such conditions.
The obstacles that the opposition faces can be divided into three categories: legislative, repressive, and political/informational.
The Kremlin spent last year toughening the legislative framework by adopting new regulations on mass rallies (imposing steep fines on people for “disorderly conduct”); an unbelievable law that labels NGOs “foreign agents”; a package of laws that makes it possible for the government to control Internet use, and more. Now, the organization of any rally depends entirely on the Kremlin’s will. The regime did not dare to forbid the May 6 rally, realizing that it would take place regardless of whether it was permitted or not, and would potentially result in new clashes with police, new criminal cases, and new reproaches from the West.
The regime did not dare to forbid the May 6 rally, realizing that it would take place regardless of whether it was permitted or not.
Having allowed the rally to occur, the government wanted to highlight its role in deciding how, where, and according to what rules opposition activities would be carried out. The opposition was prohibited from organizing a march, and rally participants could not even carry a bottle of water with them. “As a matter of fact, today’s negotiations were as difficult as in the last few days. We have been insisting on our application being fulfilled to the full extent. The authorities have been refusing to sanction the march. At one point, we were even close to abandoning our application, along with its rally part. We consulted with our colleagues, even wrote a refusal. But the mayor’s office made serious concessions,” Alexander Ryklin, a member of the Solidarity movement’s political council, told the “Russian News Service.”
Every participant was meticulously searched as he or she passed through the security gates. Even the tragic death of a volunteer, who was helping erect the stage in Bolotnaya Square, was used against the opposition. The area where the accident had taken place was sealed off, a criminal case was initiated, and the rally itself was put in jeopardy. The government’s propaganda machine used all means at its disposal to discredit the opposition movement. Oleg Golikov, the workers’ foreman, was detained, and the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper joyfully wrote that he had once worked in the Nashi movement’s summer camp at Lake Seliger, until he was expelled for alcohol abuse. The rally’s organizers had to build an improvised stage. The sound was bad, and only the first few rows could hear what the people on stage were saying. It’s worth noting that the rally began with a minute of silence in remembrance of the dead volunteer.
The toughening of legislation considerably broadened the ability of the security services to pressure the opposition, including rally participants. Suffice to recall the “Bolotnaya case,” in which some 300 people—ranging from passersby who did not even participate in the rally to members of the Coordinating Council of the Opposition—were accused of inciting “disorder” on May 6, 2012. The opposition’s successful campaign called “One day—one name” is worth mentioning in this context: every day, the opposition published detailed information about each individual who was prosecuted in the “Bolotnaya case,” including his or her fate and his or her real role in the “disorders.”
These are several examples of the repressive obstacles that the opposition has to overcome in order to continue its activity. Besides the regime initiating criminal cases against ordinary activists, it has also increased pressure on opposition leaders. While addressing participants in the May 6 rally, Alexei Navalny could not even give the precise number of criminal cases initiated against him; “Four or six,” he said, with a touch of irony, and added that he is prepared to continue the struggle even if this number exceeds one hundred. Criminal proceedings are now being held against Navalny in Kirov. Few doubt that he will be convicted, especially after Vladimir Putin’s comment during the recent call-in show that someone who has a guilty conscience should not be fighting corruption. Thus, the Kremlin has already pronounced its sentence on Navalny.
The enforcement of the new NGO law should also be mentioned among the repressive obstacles. In today’s Russia, human rights organizations offer perhaps the only way to analyze objectively and professionally the quality of the electoral process and sum up the election results. By supplying society with information about violations of human rights and freedoms, NGOs maintain protest sentiments in the country, which contradicts the Kremlin’s interests. Having adopted a law that demands that NGOs that are involved in “political activities” and receive financial support from abroad be registered as “foreign agents,” the regime began implementing this law to its full extent. Vedomosti newspaper has recently published the full text of the court ruling to name the GOLOS Association a “foreign agent.” According to this text, the funding that an NGO receives from foreign sources need not necessarily be spent on political activity in order to declare that such an organization is acting as a “foreign agent.” Whether or not the organization is acting in the interests of a foreign client does not need to be proven either: according to Magistrate Elena Semenchenok, the presence of foreign financial support is in itself sufficient proof. Having received the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in 2012, GOLOS became, in the eyes of the Kremlin, a “foreign agent,” which in Russia invariably means “spy.” The refusal to accept the award’s prize money did not satisfy the court. It is worth mentioning that during the May 6 rally, people donated 259,283 rubles and 6 kopecks ($8,300) to make it possible for GOLOS to continue its work. Many rally participants not only gave money, but also expressed their support for the association.
This all means that any criticism of Putin’s regime—and any truth undesirable to the government—will be presented by the state-owned media as coming from foreign and domestic enemies who work for the U.S. State Department and seek to destroy Russia. The opposition has to work under conditions in which the pro-Kremlin media interprets all its activity as carrying out orders from the West.
Now we come to the aforementioned political and informational obstacles. During the years of Putin’s rule, the situation regarding freedom of the press in Russia has considerably deteriorated. Political and institutional requirements for participating in elections have been narrowed to the limit. The promised “liberalization” of the laws on political parties, which Putin often talks about, is in practice selective. Thus, the People’s Alliance party, founded by Navalny’s supporters, still has not been registered. According to the Justice Ministry, the party’s documents contradict Russian legislation. This is a clear signal that despite the “liberalization,” the nonsystemic opposition will not be accepted on the legal political field.
Contradictions within the nonsystemic opposition itself represent another obstacle. By encouraging objective political disagreements, the regime aims to disorganize the opposition movement. It is amazing how fast the Moscow mayor’s office sanctioned the May 5 march, which was supposed to be an alternative to the May 6 rally. The “Opposition Expert Council”—a group that broke off from the Coordinating Council—submitted its application that was sanctioned by the authorities to the full extent. This did not result in a split in the opposition, because the May 5 event attracted only 400 people. However, in the future the regime will probably continue with similar efforts.
Participation levels in protest rallies remain higher than they were before 2011.
Despite the tragic accident and the low mood of the participants, the May 6 rally can be called a success. Since the beginning of mass protests in December 2011, participation levels have somewhat decreased, but still remain higher than they were before 2011. The country is in a febrile state. It is important to mention that the core of protest participants is still composed of representatives of the middle class—and not of political activists. The rallies are attended by ordinary Muscovites. “There is an impression that the protest [movement] is entering a new phase—a more conscious and selfless one, deprived of illusions and false hopes (without the political and romantic mockery and humor that dominated the 2011–2012 protest rallies); and this inner regeneration and coming-of-age gives birth to a new wave, which, in my opinion, is about to show itself,” wrote political analyst Alexander Kynev.
The speeches of Alexei Navalny and Boris Akunin evoked the widest response at the May 6 rally. By bringing his wife Yulia to the stage, Navalny stressed that politics have ceased to be only his business and have become the business of his family. Akunin called for an abandonment of the “theory of small deeds” and identified any cooperation of cultural figures with the regime as “collaborationism.”
The Russian protest movement, which has been emerging and strengthening itself for the last year and a half, is finally taking shape. The core of this movement is composed of representatives of the middle class, the intelligentsia, and human rights activists. This alliance will become the mainspring of the country’s development for the next few decades, and it will be the one to bring about fundamental changes in Russia.