2020: A Year in Protest

The Foundation for Democratic Development and Boris Nemstov Foundation for Freedom hosted an online event to discuss Russia’s protest movement. Moderated by journalist Maxim Trudolyubov and Zhanna Nemstov, the discussion zeroed in on an important question: what will protests in Russia look like in 2021?

Protests in Russia’s regions started gaining momentum in 2018-19 due to economic stagnation and pension reform, as well as a generally poor outlook for the country’s future. The recent protests in Khabarovsk have stood out in both scale and duration, where at times up to 10% of the city’s population took to the streets. Meanwhile, the protests have continued for nearly a year.

What’s unique about the current stage of protest?

First and most obvious is that the standard of living in Russia has fallen because of the pandemic, and people are increasingly going out to protest not because of politics, but because of economic problems. Protests are even beginning to unite all types of people, notes head of the Navalny office in Irkutsk, Sergei Bespalov: “The most pressing issue in my region aretariffs,” says Bespalov.

At the moment, street protests face significant challenges, adds Aleksei Vorsin, coordinator at the Navalny office in Khabarovsk. While many protesters have been arrested, people are still willing to take to the streets. The question is whether or not a new path to protest can be forged. “The potential [for protest] is immense, the kettle continues to boil, so let the authorities tighten the lid,” says Vorsin.

It’s definitely possible that protests in the near future will arise specifically in the provinces, suggests Artem Vashenkov, a political activist from Open Russia. This is due to the predatory behavior of the federal government and the growing demand for decentralization.

People are growing acutely aware of their own regional belonging, as well as a belonging to the city where they live. That’s what activist from Ekaterinburg, PolinaGreisman, believes: “After all of the recent protests, the people of Ekaterinburg realized that the city belongs to them. We’ve seen new clothing and other merchandise brandishing a local, Ural identity. And now, any new directive from Moscow, any attempt to order us around or arrest someone, is treated with contempt. There’s an initiative to reinstate direct mayoral elections throughout the region’s cities. Mayors in the Urals have so little power right now that more and more people want to elect them themselves.”

Amidst the push for decentralization, protests have become a uniting force for Russia’s regions.

“We joke that we’re a small, provincial city between Khabarovsk and Minsk. People say that there are protests in Khabarovsk, that there’s an uprising in Minsk, but we somehow can’t get together to stand up for our rights even though nothing is stopping us,” notes Sergei Bespalov. “We understand that we can’t accomplish anything all on our own,” says Aleskei Vorsin. As he argues, the problem is too big – anyone can end up in the same situation as ex-governor Furgal. “We paid close attention when people went to the streets in support of Khabarovsk. We were also rooting for Belarus, as well as for Baikal. Any person from Khabarovsk can imagine him or herself in the position of Belarusians.”

Artem Vashenkov has no doubt about the influence that Belarus has on Russia. “The main points of conflict in the city of Tver are infrastructure projects. People protest against the demolition of buildings. At village board meetings people threaten to take to the streets like in Khabarovsk or Belarus. We need to get ready for that because events similar to those in Belarus can also happen here, with violence, beatings, and torture. There will be a lot of work for civil rights activists.”

For Russia, the main protest event of the year was in Belarus, argues sociologist Grigory Yudin. Political scientist, Maria Snegovaya, agrees, stating that sooner or later the trajectory of protest in Russia will mirror the events in Belarus. For the time being, however, Russia’s economic situation is better off than that of Belarus’s.

Yudin adds that, in order to understand protest activity in Russia, one needs to look at long-term trends. On the one hand, we see fatigue from the current system, especially among younger generations.

On the other hand, there’s a demand for local self-governance. “Russia is terribly centralized, creating a strong sense of frustration. That’s no less relevant to Moscow, which also fights for control over its own turf,” remarks Yudin. All of this points to the growing level of dissatisfaction with inequality in the country. There’s a demand for a change in the ruling elite, for a change in how politics is done. Lastly, there’s a demand for respect between people. “In 2019, all of this manifested itself in a number of successful protests – in Ekaterinburg, Shiyes, and Moscow. In 2020, we saw a desperate attempt by the Kremlin to take control of the situation, which it had realized was getting out of control.”

However, the constitutional referendum provided the opportunity to change the situation. Today, Russians are gradually overcoming their divisiveness and becoming a unified nation.

“We see how small streams are starting to come together,” says Maria Snegovaya. People are becoming more informed about protests at the federal level, and while progress is still slow, protests are becoming less and less localized. Thanks to the internet, nearly 60% of Russians know about Khabarovsk.

Among groups of people under the age of 55, having a presence on the internet is clearly correlated with being more opposition-minded, as well as with being more informed about current events. This points to a polarization in society, which is only deepening.

While the pandemic has temporarily put public protest in Russia on hold, “we can expect that as soon as the situation returns to normal, then we’ll see a surge in social activity,” predicts Snegovaya.

The bad news is that a general sense of helplessness remains in Russian society, and an interregional political movement has yet to emerge. Vladimir Putin’s ratings are higher than Alexander Lukashenko’s, and the Kremlin is learning from Lukashenko’s mistakes.

It’s unclear what will become a trigger of protest in the future. But that doesn’t matter too much. The general mood is more important than the trigger, says Yudin. When prolonged economic stagnation – which sets the regions against the federal government – is combined with the support of a democratic opposition in the regional capitals, a qualitative transition will occur. That’s still far away, but the trend is clear.