Tag Archives: protests

Putin is Doomed

From the conclusion to ‘Kicking the Kremlin’ by British journalist Marc Bennetts:

The protest movement has failed to bring Putin down, but there is a new vulnerability about the ‘national leader’. The Kremlin’s crackdown was not so much a sign of Putin’s strength, as a tacit admission that he felt threatened.

… Ominously for Putin, the amount of Russians who believe what they see and hear on television is falling fast … and even those who believe are starting to have their doubts. … Russia is changing, but Putin is not. ‘It’s a very difficult moment to pinpoint,’ said Gleb Pavlovsky, the ex-Kremlin political consultant. ‘But whenever the emotional connection with the people is gone, it’s gone forever.’

A generation has lived their entire adult lives with Putin as either president or prime minister. Familiarity has, inevitably, bred contempt. In the words of one former supporter, Putin’s ‘judo tricks no longer cut it.’ … Putin is increasingly a figure of fun. His message of stability is increasingly irrelevant to a generation that has little memory of the chaotic 1990s. For many Russians in their early to mid-twenties, Putin is simply, as one protestor described him to me, some ‘weird old man’ who has been in politics far too long.

‘He’s lost it completely,’ said Matvei Krylov, the young activists who left home at the age of fourteen to join the fight against Putin. ‘When you look at him, you can tell that he doesn’t want to be in power anymore.’ … Krylov laughed, his words a mixture of pity and contempt ‘But he’s trapped. He’s got nowhere to run.’

Published in February 2014.

Oops!

No social activism here, please

Protest in Russia is often considered to take two distinct forms. The first is social-economic; the second is political. The first tends to be local and specific; the second general and abstract. Examples of the former would be protests about garbage disposal and truckers’ protests about new tariffs imposed on them by the government. Examples of the latter would be demonstrations about democracy or human rights. The specificity of the former appeals directly to peoples’ concrete interests in a way that the more general nature of the latter does not.  On the other hand, that very specificity also tends to limit the number of the people who can be brought into the cause, as it is unlikely to interest people who are not directly affected. It is also simpler for state authorities to appease social-economic protesters with timely concessions than it is to satisfy the more sweeping demands of political demonstrators. It is a matter of some debate which of the two worries the authorities the most.

A recent story provides one clue to a possible answer. The story in question is that French sociologist Carine Clément was detained by Russian border guards last week when she attempted to enter the country to attend an academic conference, and was then deported back to France. Clément had been due to give a paper discussing the French ‘Gilets jaunes’ and comparing them to Russian vatniki (rednecks, roughly speaking). Superficially, it doesn’t seem like something which should really bother the Russian security services. After all, the Russian state-funded TV network RT has been about the only international media outlet to regularly report on the Gilets jaunes over the past year. Nevertheless, despite the fact that she has a Russian husband and daughter, Clément was declared a threat to national security and told that she was forbidden from entering Russia for 10 years.

As a professor, restrictions on international academic exchange inevitably trouble me. I had never heard of Clément, so I looked her up. You can get an idea of her politics by a French article which notes ‘ses engagements en continuant de pointer le manque de justice sociale en Russie et la politique libérale pilotée par Vladimir Poutine.’ Anyone who considers Vladimir Putin’s policies ‘liberal’ clearly isn’t marching in step with the mainstream. Indeed, Clément appears to be very much of the left, described as a ‘militante des droits sociaux’, who has been active in defending housing rights, striking workers, and migrants, as well as striving to change Russian employment legislation. In short, she’s a social activist as much as an academic sociologist. It is this, no doubt, which has gotten her deported.

Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing recent written by her which is available on the internet, though if you speak French you can watch her talking as part of a panel of interviewees on Sputnik News in September of this year, here.  However, I was able to find an English-language version of a 2015 article entitled ‘Putin, Patriotism, and Political Apathy’.  It’s actually quite good, so I thought that I would share some excerpts of it here.

Clément starts off by noting Putin’s political popularity. This is genuine, she argues, and it’s not just a product of alternative voices being repressed. Political repression exists in Russia, but ‘Repression is not occurring on a massive scale. Many independent initiatives that are critical of current authorities still operate in broad daylight.’ The root of Putin’s support instead lies in the experience of the 1990s, Clément argues. In that time period, ordinary people ‘watched unscrupulous individuals make fortunes through small or big-time fraud’, while being treated with the utmost ‘contempt’ by the reformers and their allies, who dismissed them as ‘losers’ and ‘maladjusted’. Clément asks:

Why wouldn’t these people identify with Putin’s populist rhetoric, which recognizes their importance and respects and acknowledges their demand for a socially progressive state, rather than scorning their purported sense of entitlement and preference for paternalism? Why wouldn’t they support patriotic discourse that finally gives them a reason to be proud of their country, which their ancestors defended, but which has since been allowed to decline? … [Putin] is associated with a return to economic growth and paid salaries and pensions. Thanks to him, Crimea now belongs to the Russian Federation and the wounded pride of several generations of Russians resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been healed. Thanks to him, the “ordinary citizen” and the “people who work” and “love Russia” (to quote Putin’s speech at the rally held on February 23, 2012 at Poklony Gory in Moscow against the “for honest elections” movement) once again have something resembling a social and political status.

At the same time, Clément remarks, the liberal opposition is ‘cut off from the people’. It is obsessed with overthrowing the ‘Putin regime’, but ‘The problems that preoccupy most Russians, as indicated by polls, including poverty, housing, education, and health, do not appear as priorities.’ She recounts the story of a woman who visited the offices of the Yabloko party to complain about people who were poisoning dogs in her locality, and was told, ‘yes, of course, we see the problem. But tell us, how are we going to fight the regime?’

Russians see that this sort of thing is pointless, Clément argues. The political protests of the liberal opposition don’t interest them. Instead, they’re turning to more local forms of action, focusing on the sort of social-economic issues I mentioned at the start of this post. Clément believes that it is this sort of action, coming from below, and ‘rooted in local concerns and the realities of daily life’ which offers the best prospects for change in Russia. Thus, she concludes, ‘It seems to me, however, that a (re)politicization—a recovery of cognitive, emotional, and practical bearings—has no choice but to follow the tentative paths of mobilization “from below”.’

One can argue about how true this is, but I find it interesting that it’s gotten her into so much trouble with the authorities. After all, there’s hardly a shortage of Western academics who write nasty things about Russia, and who are allowed into the country to, among other things, meet with members of the liberal opposition and sing their praises. Political activism by foreigners seems to be more or less tolerated. But if Clément’s example is anything to go by, social-economic activism is a big no-no. Returning to the question at the end of my first paragraph, perhaps that tells us something about what worries the Russian state the most.

Arrests and accountability

Anti-corruption protests took place in multiple Russian cities on Sunday. In many cases, the protests lacked official sanction, and thus ran afoul of the law. According to one press report:

Police arrested roughly 900 people in incidents during the weekend. … The Russian Civil Liberties Association denounced the mass arrests, saying they were illegal and unconstitutional because police did not have reasonable grounds to believe that everyone they detained had committed a crime or was about to do so.

“To us, it’s abhorrent that we would be arresting more than 900 people to find maybe 50 or 100 … vandals. This makes no sense. It’s a fundamental breach of Russian law to have done that,” said the organization’s general counsel.

… The arrest figure of more than 900 people includes only those who were taken to the detention centre, not those who were temporarily detained by police. Most people were released without being charged.

… Igor Ivanov, who said he’d been detained for about 18 hours, said he had just stopped by to check things out when he was arrested on Sunday.

Wearing dark jeans, a dark t-shirt and no shoes, Mr. Ivanov said he was arrested for obstruction of police, but that he was released without charge. He said he suspects he was arrested for wearing a bandana, but said it was on his head, not his face.

He described the inside of the detention centre as “cages” resembling animal kennels, fitting as many as 20 people into the larger ones.

A 15-year-old boy, dressed in an oversized orange t-shirt and cargo pants, said he was arrested Saturday night and held for 33 hours. The teen said that he was only there to watch the protest.

“They surrounded us and told us to leave,” he said, “but how was I supposed to read the situation?” He said police never once told them how to leave or when the last warning would be before arresting him. He was initially arrested for obstructing the police, he said, but released without being charged.

Questions were raised Monday about the way police handled a group of several hundred protesters and innocent bystanders at an intersection on Sunday evening. The group was boxed in by riot police for at least three hours in the soaking rain. After several were arrested, the rest were finally allowed to leave at about 10 p.m.

………..

None of the above is true. I have switched the words Russia and Canada. The description is actually about the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. A subsequent official investigation into the events surrounding the Toronto protests concluded that the ‘police violated civil rights, detained people illegally, and used excessive force’. A disciplinary hearing also found the police officer in charge guilty of ‘discreditable conduct and unnecessary exercise of authority’.

As might be expected, the arrest of about 900 protestors in Moscow on Sunday is being used to paint the Russian authorities as particularly authoritarian. This accusation is missing the point. Mass arrests of protestors aren’t a uniquely Russian phenomenon. New York police arrested 700 Occupy Wall Street protestors on Brooklyn Bridge in 2011. And in May 2012, police in Montreal arrested 500 people during student protests. Any powerful civil authority facing what it believes are illegal protests is likely to respond in such a manner. In this sense, the Russian example is not unusual.

The difference between Russia and countries like Canada lies in something else. The excessive use of police powers in Toronto led to an official investigation and a reprimand for the officer responsible. There was a system to hold the powers that be to account. By contrast, if any Russian police overstepped their authority on Sunday, it’s relatively unlikely that anybody will be able to do anything about it. Accountability is the bedrock of a democratic order, and the system of accountability in Russia is weak. This is a major failing and it cuts to the heart of Russia’s democratic deficit. But by themselves, the arrests of the protestors this Sunday prove very little.

Spontaneous protests?

I don’t often agree with anything in The Interpreter magazine, an online publication whose content is almost uniformly hostile to Russia and its government, but it has recently had some sensible things to say about the protests in Armenia against electricity price increases. The magazine failed, however, to push its argument through to its logical conclusion, perhaps because doing so would have forced it to reassess some of its own preconceptions. Let me give two examples.

First, The Interpreter cites Russian sociologist Igor Eidman (a cousin of the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov), as saying that members of the Russian government, particularly the so-called siloviki (representatives of the military and security and intelligence services), ‘simply cannot imagine that people are capable of protesting against a government of their own free will to seek changes, democracy and so on. In their picture of the world, the special services of competitor countries must stand behind all such events.’

Second, Paul Goble remarks that, ‘Many Russian analysts are hurrying to suggest that this week’s protests in Yerevan and their suppression by the Armenian government are the opening round of a new Maidan, an anti-Moscow action that is being promoted and exploited by the West as part of a broader geopolitical struggle.’ Goble argues that this point of view is mistaken. Viewing the Armenian protests as engineered by the United States could lead Moscow into counter-productive policies, he concludes.

This is all true enough, but it isn’t the full story. The phenomenon which The Interpreter describes is not an exclusively Russian one; indeed The Interpreter itself has been guilty of it. For it and many others who oppose the current Russian government and who also oppose the rebellion in Ukraine, have consistently refused to accept that the protests in Donbass which led to the current war were expressions of popular will. They do not accept that the people of Donbass people are ‘capable of protesting … of their own free will.’ By contrast, most Russians do accept this, and thus it isn’t true that they cannot imagine such a thing. Whether people believe that protests are spontaneous or the product of outside forces depends very much on whether they support the protests in question.

Thus, the Russian government and its supporters regard the Maidan protests in Kiev which led to the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich as having been directed by American puppet-masters, whereas they view protests in Donbass as having been spontaneous in nature. The current Ukrainian government sees it the other way around: spontaneous protest at Maidan, and Russian puppet-masters in Donbass.

Both sides are wrong. It is obvious that foreign forces gave encouragement to both sets of protests, but it is naïve to imagine that the diplomats or intelligence services of any country can simply push a few buttons and incite rebellion wherever they wish. Local initiative, pushing from below, is essential in all cases, and is the primary driver of events.

Yet, while refusing to give too much credit to outside agencies, one should also avoid overstating the degree of popular support which underlies such protests. The people who occupied Maidan did not represent Ukraine as a whole; had they done so, there would not now be civil war there. Similarly, the initial demonstrations in Donbass in spring 2014 attracted no more than a few thousand people. Street protests provide a mechanism through which radicals can bypass normal legal procedures. Even if tens of thousands of people participate, they are not democratic in nature.

Overall, therefore, the conspiratorial model which describes mass demonstrations primarily in terms of external intervention is inaccurate, but one should be careful not to idealize such demonstrations as the true voice of the people either.