Our staff journalist on Russian affairs and Eastern Europe, Kseniya Kirillova, has penned an analysis of the domestic political atmosphere in the Russian Federation, an overall growing disapproval of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his party, and the formation of a nascent resistance movement.
She discusses the protests that have manifested increasingly since summer, most notably those between July and August and how they are incrementally influencing public opinion, which is moving away from Putin’s authoritarian regime.
One takeaway from Ms. Kirillova’s reporting, is the sort of traits of governance that Donald Trump’s partisans in Congress and in right wing media, find worthy of their allegiance. Not one of them will raise so much as a whisper about the heavy handed employment of a police state apparatus used by the Kremlin to crush dissent. Silence is consent.
Pretty telling, when you think about it.
As these kinds of protests become increasingly common, polls tell us that Russians have been losing confidence in President Vladimir Putin. But those two trends do not add up to a popular movement for change. They may be frustrated, but Russians are also too divided and anxious to coalesce around a revolutionary vision or action.
Putin’s Declining Popularity
Most significantly, public confidence approval ratings of Putin and his policies have dropped since 2018 because of the extremely unpopular “pension reform.” At the end of May 2019, the ratings of the Russian president had fallen below its historical minimum and reached 31.7 percent.
Another ominous trend for Putin and his government is the recent growth of protest activity in Russia. Anastasia Nikolskaya, a researcher at Kosygin Russian State University who has for years studied the attitudes of the Russian public, told this year’s meeting of the Free Russia Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania:
“There is a growing tendency of [Russians] fighting for their rights by constitutional means. Respect is among the most important Russian values, so the arrogant statements of low-level local officials make people feel even more offended. It’s fair to say that people have changed.”
These demands for respect and self-government, along with rising skepticism of Putin, are being made as the economy and living standards continue to decline. At least two large-scale protest movements in recent months—both regional and federal—illustrate these trends:
- First, citizens in Yekaterinburg, an industrial city in the Urals and the fourth largest city in Russia, protested the construction of a cathedral on one of the city’s most popular squares in the heart of the city. The huge mass of demonstrators carried the day, and even Putin had to acknowledge the conflict.
- The second action, which spread across Russia, was the movement for the release of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, on whom police had planted drugs in order to fabricate a criminal case. Outrage over Golunov’s plight was so widespread that the case against him was dropped and authorities launched an investigation into who fabricated evidence against him.
For all its growing strength, however, the Russian protest movement’s vulnerabilities keep it from blossoming into a genuine threat to Putin’s regime:
Second, a formidable protest movement requires that different parts of society come together to either seek a common goal or voice a common objection. During the Yekaterinburg protest there were splits not only among citizens but also within the protest movement itself.
On the one hand, it coalesced many ecologists, supporters of democratic transformations, and previously indifferent citizens. On the other hand, some people broke away from the dissident movement due to discrepancies in the “church matter,” and some dissidents were grateful to Putin when he eventually intervened.
Third, a protest movement becomes a threat to those in power when people realize that the current government cannot meet their key demands. In Russia, discontent and anger have repeatedly given Putin the opportunity to play the benevolent Tsar, arbiter and solver of problems.
If people see no possibility of agreement among themselves and see appealing to higher authorities as the only way to solve their problems, their protest activity will never go beyond the local level.
In these three key ways, the Yekaterinburg protests lacked the elements necessary to become a national movement, but they still mattered. As sociologists point out, such actions help citizens develop their potential to protest and show them that mass protests are an effective way to protect their rights
Aside from mass repression, some uniquely Russian circumstances have so far prevented the kind of social cohesion necessary to create a large and consequential protest movement: fear of an external threat from which Russians need to be protected, the lack of a consolidating idea, and the lack of consensus about what the future should look like
Russians are more afraid of the specters dreamed up by the Kremlin than they are outraged by lawlessness and falling living standards. Those specters are the “menacing West” and the return to chaos, devastation, and even war that they have been told to expect if Putin and his system are overthrown. As long as Russians see in Putin a defender and savior from these threats, they would not dare to participate in a revolutionary protest
Finally, Russians cannot agree on what type of future they should be advocating for, which contributes to the absence of unifying leaders and protest strategies.
Since 2001, the independent Levada sociological agency has periodically asked Russians what they think of Joseph Stalin. This year, the level of favorable or neutral view towards the Soviet leader stands at 77%. Of course, Russia’s liberal opposition rejects the notion of Stalin as the embodiment of the country’s restive mood, while Stalin’s admirers aggressively refuse to see liberal dissidents as the custodians of their aspirations.
For all these reasons, an effective protest movement seems a long way off in Russia, but any efforts to build one will need a few specific elements:
- First, it will likely consolidate around a social problem that is a direct consequence of Putin’s policies, as opposed to the actions of local oligarchs, officials, or church hierarchies.
- Second, Russia’s modern-day dissidents will have to discredit the propaganda that is the cornerstone of Putin’s regime, specifically that the West awaits the chance to pounce on a vulnerable Russia and that regime change would unleash chaos on society. Activists will need to show that the Kremlin has been the aggressor in its confrontations with the West.
Further, Russians need to be shown that the plundering of the country and the redirection of funds to the war directly threaten their lives and well-being.
In debunking the Kremlin’s carefully nurtured fear of a return to the wild ’90s in the event of regime change, activists should remind Russians that it was the restructured Committee for State Security (KGB) and mafia, not the democrats, who plundered the country and took money abroad.
Activists also need to imbue their actions and rhetoric with patriotism. The Kremlin will not have a monopoly on the language of security and defense if activists can convince Russians that Putin’s militarism and adventurism threatens Russia’s security.
Finally, democrats need to make the point that this regime is arbitrary and that its displeasure can be directed at people of all political persuasions — that loyalty to the regime does not protect against repression.
by Kseniya Kirillova
Though irrelevant in that each scandal must be evaluated on its it’s own merits (or demerits), it is helpful in putting the Ukraine situation in perspective by comparing it to Watergate. Both involved an attempt to gain a political upper hand by seeking dirt or inside information on rivals to a sitting president’s reelection.
In the case of Watergate, that dirt was sought via an unsuccessful attempt to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Today, it involves an unsuccessful attempt to strong arm a foreign country into making a public statement insinuating dirt exists regarding the president’s leading rival for the White House.
That, however, is where the similarities end.
A solid argument can be made that the situation involving Ukraine is worse than Watergate because the collateral damage of Watergate’s third rate burglary, outside the damage to our electoral process was essentially nil, whereas in this case, the national security interests of the United States, the safety of Ukraine – a key strategic partner – and the relative strategic positions of the US and Russia in the security of Europe were put at risk.
So, what could the outcome of such disregard of Russian geopolitical intentions have on future US interests? Well, think of the outcome the last time the world looked the other way as an autocrat sought territory in Eastern Europe – we had a British Prime minister proclaiming “peace in our time” barely a year before that peace was ended by the greatest armed conflict in human history.
Such are the risks this president is willing to ignore for his own immediate, personal gain.
Make no mistake, Putin’s Russia has pursued military action to steal territory from Ukraine, while actively working to undermine western democracy by sowing distrust with the ultimate goal of shifting the center of power from one that is westward facing toward the US, to one that is eastward facing toward Russia.
Not only would such a shift create great instability within Europe, but it would also distract those western democracies, including the US, from preparing for the geopolitical threat China presents at a time when girding for that threat economically, politically and militarily, is critical.
All that is what this president put second to his personal political interests, making this far worse and more damaging to the nation than anything that Watergate could have done to our interests.
by Paul Szydlowski
In the “Good News” department, a man who provided life saving assistance to dehydrated and malnourished migrants in the Sonora desert border region between the United States and Mexico, has been acquitted by a jury in the second trial he was subjected to by federal prosecutors in Tucson. “The government failed in its attempt to criminalize basic human kindness,” the defendant said after the verdict was read Wednesday.
We wrote a story about Scott Warren, the defendant, a member of the humanitarian aid group, “No More Deaths”, detailing the persistent harassment and false accusations aimed at him by the Border Patrol and the U.S. Attorneys Office in Southern Arizona.
Of the jury’s decision, Warren’s attorney, Greg Kuykendall said, “They decided that humanitarian aid is not always a crime the way the government wanted it to be. Instead, they decided that humanitarian aid is virtually never a crime.”
NPR reports that Warren’s acquittal on two felony harboring counts and one conspiracy to transport count was celebrated by the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, who runs the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a nonprofit advocacy group. No More Deaths is a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.
Morn told reporters that, “The verdict is a sharp and welcome rebuke to the administration’s ongoing effort to criminalize compassion — and marks a major victory for all of the humanitarian workers willing to risk their own lives to save those of others.”
The prosecution team carrying out what they believe to be Donald Trump’s cruelty is essential, immigration priorities, is angry, but undaunted by the verdict.
“Although we’re disappointed in the verdict, it won’t deter use from continuing to prosecute all the entry and reentry cases that we have, as well as all the harboring and smuggling cases and trafficking that we have,” said Michael Bailey, the U.S. attorney for Arizona. “We won’t distinguish between whether someone is harboring or trafficking for money or whether they’re doing it out of a misguided sense of social justice or belief in open borders.”
by Richard Cameron