Political Unrest in Russia
GDP per capitaIMF 2005 US$
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A former intelligence officer, Vladimir Putin may have as good a sense as anyone as to the prospect for political unreset in Russia. He appears to have a well founded fear of such developments. In February 2014 it appeared that the government of Ukraine had embarked on a ten-fold enlargement of its riot control police. At the same time, Russia embarked on a ten-fold enlargement of its recently created Military Police, earmarked for riot control. The government is paranoid about conceding any political space to critics. Putin's popularity has consistently declined since the overwhelming 71 percent of votes that he received in the 2004 presidential elections. The political shenanigans that gained him more than 350 votes in the Duma in the 2007 election produced fewer than 300 seats in the 2011 election, and provoked the largest and most sustained public demonstrations seen since the financial crisis in 1998.
About 500 people were detained Monday in Moscow and St Petersburg at unauthorized rallies 24 February 2014 in protest at the imprisonment of seven opposition activists. The crowd chanted "Maidan! Maidan!" before riot police moved in, arresting scores of demonstrators. People stood behind a makeshift barricade of burning tires waving Ukrainian flags and banging sticks against metal shields. The crowd also shouted in Ukrainian "Bandu het" (Out with the gang!) and hurled insults at riot police, calling them by their Ukrainian name, "Berkut."
A spokesman for the Moscow police department said 420 people were detained during a rally in downtown Moscow, which it said had been attended by some 500 people in total. The event had not been approved by Moscow City Hall and thus violated the law on public gatherings. Those detained “were continuing their illegal actions despite police demands to stop,” a police spokesman said, adding that they face misdemeanor charges. Sixty people were detained at a similar rally in St. Petersburg, which, according to city police, gathered about 100 activists. Media reports said the demonstrators gathered to show support for a group of seven activists sentenced earlier that day to up to four years in prison for involvement in an anti-Kremlin rally on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow that ended in violent clashes with police in May 2012.
Public complacency and a craving for "normalcy" reign, fed by eight years of uninterrupted economic growth, full coffers, and the pride associated with Russia's reemergence as a major global player. The impact of the 2008 economic crisis was insufficient to overcome Moscow's perennial apathy. Federal and city authorities in Moscow will continue to use their resources and enormous law enforcement presence to further reduce the prospect of social unrest, understanding that what happens in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a few other large cities will set the tone for the rest of the country, and not vice versa.
For years Putin did not face any credible threat from any pole on the political spectrum. Putin may be the same authoritarian ruler he has been all along, but the Russian people’s tolerance for this type of rule has changed since Putin first assumed the presidency in 1999. As recent protests have demonstrated, in an age of cell phone cameras and the Internet, a wave of nationwide protests may suddenly ignite at any time, demanding fundamental political change. Whether Putin's brand of authoritarianism could be sustained given the challenges posed by inflation, demographics, public attachment to entitlements, and the plateau in oil and gas production brought on by expanding state control and lack of upstream investment, is an open question.
By 2009 Russia's deepening economic crisis and uncertainty over the durability of the Medvedev-Putin political "tandem" crystallized divisions in the elite between the hardline "siloviki" (drawn disproportionately from the security and intelligence services) and more moderate proponents of Russia's political and economic development. As the economic downturn has highlighted the weaknesses of Putin's "miracle" that harnessed unprecedented high natural resource prices to improve the average Russian's quality of life over the previous 8 years, a critical debate took place over whether to maintain the status quo or embrace reform and liberalization as the only path to further development. The defenders of the status quo advocated a "tightening of the screws" against domestic opposition and their alleged external supporters -- principally the US and its Western allies rather than any loosening of political or social controls.
Concern about potential social unrest associated with the crisis contributed to (or provided justification for) the services' push in 2009 eliminate jury trials and to broaden the definition of "treason" to include the organization of protests against the government; the former was passed into law, while Medvedev withdrew the treason law for revision. The MVD deployed special "OMON" forces in late December 2008 against protesters in Vladivostok who demonstrated against new taxes on imported automobiles. Moreover, plans to reduce the number of MVD internal troops were shelved, ostensibly to retain a security force for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.
Russia acknowledged for the first time on 07 November 2013 that its economy would lag global growth over the coming two decades, setting the stage for an era of stagnation that could threaten the stability of the regime. Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev forecast that Russia's economy would grow at an average rate of 2.5 percent during that period - down from an earlier 4 percent and half the 5 percent rate Putin had targeted before his return to the Kremlin in 2012.
Over 100,000 people demonstrated near the Kremlin in sub-zero weather against the conduct of the December 2011 parliamentary elections which were characterized by open fraud. In the months that followed, there were smaller demonstrations demanding election reform in Moscow and in cities across Russia. These demonstrations have demonstrated that the people are losing their fear, and their patience.
Russia is no stranger to political turmoil. In 1993, Yeltsin won a popular mandate in a referendum which he used to dissolve the Communist-dominated Parliament and increase his own power. That led to an autumn showdown, the shelling of Parliament by tanks and the total defeat, for the time being, of Yeltsin's legislative opponents. Protests in the five since 1993 were generally rather tepid affairs.
Difficulties in implementing fiscal reforms aimed at raising government revenues and a dependence on short-term borrowing to finance budget deficits led to a serious financial crisis in 1998. Lower prices for Russia's major export earners (oil and minerals) and a loss of investor confidence due to the Asian financial crisis exacerbated financial problems. The result was a rapid decline in the value of the ruble, flight of foreign investment, delayed payments on sovereign and private debts, a breakdown of commercial transactions through the banking system, and the threat of run-away inflation. Russia's GDP, estimated at $452 billion in 1997, is believed to have declined by as much as 9.9% from September 1997 to September 1998. By October 1998, unemployment had crept up from 9% to 11.5% (using International Labor Organization methodologies). Combined unemployment and underemployment may reach 20%.
By September 1998 increasingly dire economic circumstances in Russia led to street protests popping up all over Russia, including a town called Snezhinsk, home of a nuclear weapons laboratory where workers said they have not been paid for five months. Two weeks after the resignation of Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, the new Prime Minister, Yevgeny M. Primakov, made an extraordinary televised appeal for calm. "The way out of the crisis for Russia is in public order and consent, stability and discipline... I would to like call on everybody not to rock our common boat in today's stormy seas." This came as millions of Communists and trade unionists prepared nationwide strikes over the ravaged economy. The strikes appear aimed at maintaining the pressure on Primakov to steer a leftward course and on President Boris N. Yeltsin to resign.
On 07 October 1998 the marches drew only a small fraction of the ten million demonstrators the Communists had predicted. While thousands of factories and companies witnessed short, symbolic work stoppages, life basically went on as usual. The Communists planned for 200,000 demonstrators in Moscow, but the Kremlin isaid no more than 50,000 turned up. Low turnouts were also reported elsewhere. Police estimated 70,000 protested in Vladivostok, not the 300,000 the Communists claimed.
The exchange rate stabilized in 1999 -- after falling from 6.5 rubles/dollar in August 1998 to approximately 25 rubles/dollar by April 1999, one year later it had further depreciated only to approximately 28.5 rubles/dollar. After some large spikes in inflation following the August 1998 economic crisis, inflation declined steadily throughout 1999, with an overall figure of 36.5%; inflation for the first quarter of 2000 was an estimated 4.1%.
The Russian electorate preferred economic and social stability over political activism. Annually since 1998, the Levada Center has asked poll respondents whether order at the expense of democracy would be preferable to democracy at the expense of order. By more than a three to one margin, the respondents have routinely chosen order over democracy. In February 1998, 71 percent of respondents indicated that order is more important while 14 percent indicated that democracy was more important. In November 2007, these numbers were 68 percent and 18 percent respectively, essentially indistinguishable from the responses in 1998.
By 2008 polling results from the Levada Center highlighted Russians' satisfaction with the country's economic and political stability and a desire for a continuation of the status quo. The polls also demonstrated over several years a preference for a strong government hand in the economy and for social over human rights. Dissatisfaction with the services provided by the government, according to the polls, went hand-in-hand with praise for head of state President Putin, who received all credit for the good and no blame for the bad that has occurred on his watch.
While Putin was the lucky beneficiary of sky-high oil and gas prices, the track record of nine years of 10 percent average growth in wages had produced a significant increase in the standard of living and in morale, which was impossible for any opposition to belittle. The economic "euphoria" was matched by an atypical Russian optimism about the future, pride over Russia's return to the international stage, and satisfaction over the fact that Russia could not be taken for granted. Despite residual Kremlin concerns over the possibility of an "orange revolution", Russians were living better than they ever had, under a regime that was the least repressive in Russian history. People may grumble, but life was quantifiably better. The result, was a profound political apathy and voluntary ceding of authority to the state.
Critics of the regime heralded the protest wave that swept across Russia in December 2008 against the government's decision to raise import tariffs on the import of automobiles (particularly the lucrative inflow of used cars from Japan and Europe) as evidence of the shaky social foundations of the Putin system. The sight of thousands of ordinary citizens on the streets harked back to the 2004 pensioners' protests over the monetization of benefits or, for the more radically minded, even to the demonstrations that brought down the Soviet Union.
On 22 December 2008 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin send OMON units from Moscow, Daghestan and two Siberian cities to suppress a second weekend of demonstrations in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok. The move was seen as an indication that Moscow feared protests in the regions could gather support from local governments and represent a threat to the regime itself. Protests began after Putin imposed an additional tariff on imported cars on 09 December 2008 in the name of protecting Russia's domestic automobile producers. By 21 December 2008 more than 2,000 people demonstrated in Vladivostok, against the tariffs and with a demand that Putin be dismissed as prime minister. The Vladivostok protest followed similar demonstrations in Kaliningrad, Tomsk, Barnaul, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Chita, Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Kazan, Abakan, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, St. Petersburg, Moscow and other Russian cities. It seems that Putin could not count on local militia to control the situation.
Despite a deepening economic crisis in 2009 and polling data that indicates a readiness to revert to social protest, civil society activists downplayed the potential for social movements to coalesce politically in Moscow and noted the federal and city government's efforts to make it harder for social protests to spin out of control. A March 6 Levada Center survey indicated that 23% of Russians would consider joining mass protests against falling living standards. Although regular protests took place in Moscow, they were not large-scale and they do not pose a threat to the Moscow City government. Given the importance of Moscow as a bellwether, there was continued official focus on tamping down prospects of unrest.
There were no current or emerging leaders capable of organizing a social movement in Moscow that could present a challenge to the leadership. Social groups remain fragmented, with Muscovites either apathetic or fearing losing everything in a "climate of spies." NGOs shy away from political activities because they fear retaliation from authorities.
The country experienced an unprecedented number of public protests during 2012. While some demonstrations were allowed to proceed peacefully, others were marked by police misconduct, mass detentions, and subsequent prosecutions and jail terms. The resurgence of the protest movement suggests that Russians have become more politically engaged and that mass civic action will continue to be a feature of the Russian political landscape. Local disturbances were unlikely to evolve into nationwide protests due to the lack of organized political opposition. As evidence of the low level of confidence in traditional unions, workers in other regions have continued to form new, independent unions to defend their rights. After the March 2012 Presidential elections protests occurred in many cities throughout the country, most notably on May 6, when approximately 30,000 protesters rallied in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. While initially peaceful, the demonstration turned violent when police restricted the movement of protesters across a narrow bridge leading to the square. More than 400 protesters were arrested, 16 of whom remained in detention more than seven months after their arrest. At year’s end 16 other defendants awaited outcomes of investigations into their involvement in the May 6 protest, and dozens more were under investigation.
The large-scale public protests seen after the March 2012 Presidential elections died down towards the close of the year but were revived on January 12, 2013 when tens of thousands of people turned out to protest the Dima Yakovlev Law, which bans the adoption of Russian children by American citizens. The law was in direct retaliation to the U.S. 2012 Magnitsky Act which bans the travel of Russian human rights violators to the United States. The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of three (one has since been released) members of the Russian punk rock group “Pussy Riot” became another flashpoint for opponents of the Putin administration and raised questions regarding the state of Russia’s democracy. Opposition figures have faced increasing harassment by the Russian authorities though permits for protest marches are generally approved and have, so far, avoided large scale violence.
Aleksey Navalny, anticorruption whistleblower and member of the opposition Coordination Council, was charged with three criminal cases in 2012, including prior 2009 charges for conspiring to steal timber that were resurrected following Navalny’s public criticism of Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin. Other opposition figures, including politician Boris Nemtsov and chess professional Garry Kasparov, were detained at various points in 2012 on a variety of grounds.
On 21 February 2012, several members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, their faces covered by balaclavas, performed a punk protest song, “Virgin Mary, Redeem Us of Putin,” in front of the altar inside the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. Authorities subsequently arrested group members Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova on March 4 and Ekaterina Samutsevich on March 15. The women were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years. During the trial, the court reportedly barred defense lawyers from calling most of the witnesses they wanted, such as experts and eyewitnesses. The lawyers were also reportedly given limited time to meet with the defendants. On August 17, the three women were sentenced to two years in prison. Samutsevich’s conviction was overturned, and she was released on probation after she hired a new lawyer, who argued that she could not have engaged in the performance due to having been removed from the premises beforehand. Human rights advocates believed the charges and lengthy sentences were politically motivated, given the nonviolent nature of the crime.
Following increased mobilization of civil society and mass demonstrations in reaction to elections, the government introduced a series of measures limiting political pluralism. During 2012 Russia adopted laws that impose harsh fines for unsanctioned meetings; identify nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as “foreign agents” if they engage in “political activity” while receiving foreign funding; suspend NGOs that have U.S. citizen members or receive U.S. support and are engaged in “political activity” or “pose a threat to Russian interests”; recriminalize libel; allow authorities to block Web sites without a court order; and significantly expand the definition of treason. Media outlets were pressured to alter their coverage or to fire reporters and editors critical of the government.
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities continued to restrict this right. The law requires notification for public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on some occasions local elected and administrative officials selectively denied some groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently located. Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially permitted. According to ovidinfo.org, approximately 2,000 persons were arrested at protests between March 6 and May 8 during 2012. Many observers noted a consistent pattern of officials encouraging rallies friendly to the government while preventing politically sensitive demonstrations.
On 08 June 2012, a law went into effect that increased the penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of the law on public assembly. The law increased fines by 100-fold, up to 300,000 rubles (approximately $9,881) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($19,762) for organizers, and one million rubles ($32,938) for groups or companies. Observers saw this law as a reaction to the wave of public protests and renewed civic activism that began in December 2011, sparked by credible allegations of electoral fraud.
On 21 July 2012, a new law went into effect that requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity to register as “foreign agents.” Domestic and international observers saw the law as an attempt to stigmatize and deny funding to NGOs working on human rights and democracy. Civil society leaders were concerned that the law’s reference to “political activity” was loosely defined and that NGOs could not be sure if the law applied to them. In December the Dima Yakovlev Act went into effect, which bans NGOs that engage in political activity or any activity that “poses a threat to” the Russian Federation from receiving uncompensated financial or material assistance from any U.S. person or organization.
In September 2014 volunteer groups were reportedly being formed in some Russian regions to help authorities stave off the type of regime change led in part by the Maidan movement in Ukraine, named after the central Kyiv square that was the focal point of antigovernment protests starting November 2013. The "anti-Maidan" volunteer groups would reportedly consist of 10 members each and would have a foreman to lead the group. The volunteer groups were set up by the newly established Anti-Maidan Council, a body that brings together veterans of Russian military and special forces, activists, and representatives of the Orthodox Church community.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of seeking a "regime change" in Russia by imposing sanctions because of the Ukraine conflict. Lavrov said November 22, 2014 that prominent figures in Western countries are saying there is a need to impose sanctions that will destroy Russia's economy and incite public protests.
“Western leaders publicly state that the sanctions must hurt [Russia's] economy and stir up public protests. The West doesn’t want to change Russia’s policies. They want a regime change. Practically nobody denies that,” Lavrov told the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a leading think-tank in Moscow. His comments came two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country must prevent a "color revolution," referring to protests that toppled leaders in other former Soviet republics.
Sergei Kolesnikov profited as a Putin crony in 1990s St. Petersburg fled Russia in 2010. Kolesnikov says that the Kremlin inner circle, who have effectively painted themselves into a corner -- albeit a very wealthy, powerful one -- with no easy way out. "Putin's entire chain of command is built on a foundation of corruption," Kolesnikov says. "To see power go to another party or other people would be to put themselves under enormous threat of criminal investigation and inevitable punishment."
Brian Whitmore wrote December 23, 2015 that "... the Kremlin understands all too well that the sky-high public support is largely based on a collective hallucination -- a euphoric patriotic purple haze resulting from the annexation of Crimea and the illusion that Russia is again a superpower. And they understand that once everybody comes down from this television-induced acid trip and hungover Russians have a clear view of their new reality, there's gonna be hell to pay."
"To ordinary people, the fruit of Putin's foreign policy is bitter," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg View. "All that Russians have gotten from Putin's international activity is a boost to their pride, delivered by the Kremlin's propaganda channels -- not a tangible benefit as the economy continues to buckle under the weight of falling commodity prices."
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