Why haven’t the 2011 protests hit Russia?


If mass unrest hits Russia, it won’t be in the form of ‘Occupy’ protests – it will be nationalist
Sean Guillory

Half of Russians say that their life is ‘difficult but possible to endure’, according to a recent poll [EPA]

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – A spectre is haunting the globe – the spectre of the indignant. From New York to Hama, London to Tripoli, Madrid to Athens, a zone of revolt has descended. The year 2011 will one day be entered into the pantheon of revolutions – 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989/91. Will Russia join the fray? Will it topple like in 1917 and 1991, or will it remain impervious to the revolutionary waves, like in 1848 under Nicholas I, the Gendarme of Europe? As it now stands there doesn’t appear to be a mass movement, let alone a revolution in the stars. Like the other BRICs, Russia is a model of political and economic stability. It weathered the Coloured Revolutions in its periphery in the mid-2000s; now it appears that it will survive 2011 in a similar way. Why has Russia not shaken? And if there is a potential mass movement in the making, why would it be a movement no sensible person in Russia or abroad would want?
There are a variety of reasons why mass protests haven’t hit Russia. Some say that the Kremlin is so repressive that any attempt to set up tents in central Moscow would be instantly squashed. Advocates of this view seem to forget the even more repressive regimes of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Others point to the fact that Russians have “revolution fatigue”. After a century that witnessed three revolutions, Russians know that another one will not hold the keys to the promised land. Some even suggest that something much harder has to hit Russia to provoke a popular reaction. “Our society has completely different problems and different means to solve them,” Boris Nadezhdin, a member of Right Cause’s political council, recently told Voice of America. “People would survive the destruction of something like the housing market. For them it’s not a catastrophe. A catastrophe for them is war and famine.”

Russia is far from a brutal war or famine. In fact, it lacks many of the social and economic conditions plaguing Arab states and Western liberal democracies. Despite declining polls, Putin and Co. still remain popular. Russia has successfully weathered the global economic crisis, has no sovereign debt problem, no mortgage crisis, and no widespread household debt. According to Rosstat, overall unemployment is low, around six per cent, but joblessness among young people 16-25 years old is quite high, 26.1 per cent, and comparable to that in Arab states and the West.

Yet this has not caused many young people to lose faith in capitalism or the Putin system. “In Russia everyone knows the emperor wears no clothes, even when he’s dressed in Armani and Brioni. Yet we don’t have “occupiers”, writes Malor Sturua in Moskovskii komsomolets. “The ideals of our youth are Putin and [the oligarch Roman] Abramovich, power and money. They aren’t drawn to occupy Moscow’s ‘Wall Street’. They prefer to be a part of it.”

Moreover, Sturua continues, Russia is “submerged in a pool of social passivity and civic apathy. Civil society has not ripened in it. Authoritarian society has ripened where they chose the Presidents and nominate the Prime Ministers several years before the elections in secret from the people. And the people who do this are a million times less than one per cent of the Russian population. ‘Stability’ plays the role of progress. And as they explain not long ago, the Brezhnev stagnation was damn good for the Soviet Union.”

Sturua’s pessimism and sarcasm is typical of the Russian intelligentsia. The Russia people, the narrative goes, are too naturally inclined toward gentle patronage of the tsar-batiushka (little father). They all know that the entire system is a joke, but yet they do nothing.

Authoritarian personalities aside, the fact is though dissatisfaction in Russia exists, people are willing to weather whatever comes their way. Thus, while a study conducted by the Zircon research group shows that the 20 per cent of Russians who considered themselves “middle class” in 2008 has dropped to 12 per cent, other indicators demonstrate that Russians’ overall outlook on their personal and national economy reveals a growing sense of stability. A poll just released by the Levada Centre shows that about half of Russians see their life as “difficult but possible to endure”, and a majority sees their personal and the country’s economic situation as “average”. At the same time, a third see protests against falling living standards as “completely possible”. This is no small number. Yet nothing of the sort has happened because when asked whether they would hit the streets, an overwhelming majority, 73 per cent, said “No”.

Dizziness without success

Still, whatever social and economic discontent exists in Russia, established opposition forces seem reluctant to harness it. The Russian Left has been marginalised and fragmented. Trade unions are atrophied. The Communist Party speaks the rhetoric of socialism and worker’s rights but is unwilling to break with electoral politics. This leaves Russia’s liberals as the most potent force for change: that is, if you read the New York Times or New York Review of Books.

Russian liberals, however, seem wholly uninterested in the social and economic lives of most Russians. Instead, they hold protests around abstract issues like free and fair elections, freedom of assembly and human rights. Russian liberals have lionised a one-percenter – Mikhail Khodorkovsky – as the archetypical hero to Putin’s villainy. On the whole, Russian liberals are more neo-liberal than liberal. Their problem with Russian capitalism is that it’s not capitalist enough. The magic of the invisible hand, they argue, keeps getting slapped down by the interventionist bureaucratic state. Perhaps this is why the Occupy Wall Street has received a lukewarm response. It took weeks before Russia’s three main liberal outlets – Novaya Gazeta, New Times, and Ezhednevnyi zhurnal – to cover OWS, though the rest of the Russian media was providing extensive coverage and opinion. Igor Aidman, a sociologist and oppositionist, offered this diagnosis:

The revolutionary wave in the West places a question before the Russian opposition: Who is with you in your fight against the regime? What is more, this question is, in fact, not one of positioning, protests, or appeals. This, first and foremost, is about the purpose of the opposition. What are its principles? For us to have capitalism “like in America”? Or is it for the formation of a new and more modern and just society?

Currently, our opposition trails behind events. Moreover, it doesn’t allow itself to associate with the global movement for democracy, but with the most idiotic conservative Western elites. Several Russian oppositionist leaders are not squeamish by their association with such mastodons like Hillary Clinton and even a degenerate [John] McCain. It’s clear that many Western politicians are no better than Putin. They are similar to the henchmen of oligarchic capital and bureaucracy in our country.

Our opposition has no reason to depend on the help of the Western elite. The West, will actively cooperate with Putin and his Myrmidon-esque [Vladislav] Surkov as long as they are in power … That said, any contact with people like McCain discredits the opposition in the eyes of the Russian citizens.

As Aidman’s provocation suggests, events have shown that the West also wears no clothes. Russian liberals often cite the US as the model for the rule of law, free speech and free assembly. But the Occupy movement has shown that the American state is less tolerate when protests against the rich are concerned. Are the images of police firing tear gas and stun grenades into crowds of peaceful protests, the raiding Occupy camps with clubs, and harassing and arresting journalists, causing vertigo among Russian liberals?

The revolution will be nationalist

If there is any threat of an emerging mass movement in Russia, it is the nationalist right. Anti-immigrant sentiment garners popular sympathy. A study by the Levada Centre found that 60 per cent of Russians support the nationalist slogan, “Russia for the Russians”, and about 50 per cent of Moscow residents support curtailing migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia to the city. The concern, says Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Centre, is not that xenophobia is spreading, but that “social resistance to [it] is weakening”.

You can see this growing tolerance for intolerance in political parties’ attempt to tap nationalist sentiment among the electorate. As part of its Duma campaign, the Communist Party is proposing a return to the Soviet practice of stating a citizen’s nationality in their passport, while the LDPR is putting “We’re for Russians” on its campaign posters. Even Russian liberals have thrown their hat into the nationalist ring.

Most prominently, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s premiere anti-corruption fighter, and liberal activist Vladimir Milov, “the Russian opposition’s fresh face“, recently promoted the “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” campaign. Navalny went even further and joined the organising committee of the Russian March, a nationalist potpourri that rallies ever year on November 4, Unity Day. Amid the gold, black and white tricolor of the Romanov Dynasty and Nazi salutes, you can hear such slogans as “Russia for Russians”, “Fuck the Jews” and Navalny’s own anti-United Russia battle cry, “Down with the party of crooks and thieves”. Navalny’s nationalist sympathies are well known, but until now, conveniently forgotten. Nevertheless, his and Milov’s move has caused a rift in the liberal camp, and in some cases, calling for some to ignore the inherent contradictions between liberal values and extreme nationalism for the larger strategy of Liberal-Nationalist front.

Russian nationalism has a long history, though its present manifestation is coded in similar sentiments found in Europe and the US. The sense that immigrants, particularly the Muslim variety from the Caucasus and Central Asia, are taking over the country, stealing jobs, spreading crime and benefitting at Russians’ expense are all hallmarks of nationalist rhetoric. Russians’ perception that they are victims despite their dominance in Russian political and cultural life stems from the belief that they are a people without a nation. The official title of Russia is the Rossiiskii Federation, not the Russkii Federation. It’s difficult to render the difference in English, but Rossiiskii is akin to a civic identity like “American”, while Russkii is an ethno-cultural identity. Historically, the latter had to be subordinated for the former to prosper.

The power of “Russian victimhood” has reared its head in two incidents in the last year. The first was in December 2010 when 5,000 football fans and nationalists rioted on Manezh Square in central Moscow over the murder of Yegor Sviridov by a Caucasian men. The second occurred in July in the village of Sagra when a firefight between residents and a criminal gang of Azeris led to the death of Faig Musaev, an illegal immigrant. To nationalists, both Manezh and Sagra and several other ethnic clashes, in the words of one commentator, “have become proper nouns and symbols of this molecular war”.

The question is: Will this war remain molecular or will it eventually expand into a molar conflagration? One thing is clear: If it does, youth will be its spearhead. Nationalism is most popular among Russia’s working class and provincial youth, the very people who see fewer and fewer future prospects and are in direct competition with immigrant labour for jobs.

However, these youths share little by way of ideology, tactics or vision to their counterparts in the Middle East, Europe and America. While the latter looks for a more inclusive world where power is deployed horizontally, the former wants to establish a strict hierarchy of peoples with Russians on top. Yet despite their vast differences, Russian nationalism, the Arab Spring, the indignado protests in Spain, the encampments on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Avenue, the London student protests and ghetto riots and the occupants of numerous parks and squares around the United States Wall Street share one undeniable quality: youth. Youth predominate in all these movements, and their sense of marginalisation and anger is growing. And that makes for a ticking time-bomb.

Sean Guillory is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He blogs about Russia at Sean’s Russia Blog and can be followed on Twitter @seansrussiablog.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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