The Russian opposition: Digging an elephant’s grave with a teaspoon

The Russian opposition: Digging an elephant’s grave with a teaspoon

On 5 May, opposition leader Alexey Navalny led mass unsanctioned protests against the inauguration of President Vladimir Putin. Soon after, Navalny was sentenced to 30 days in prison. Andre Martirosyan asks: is political opposition in Russia a hopeless cause – or will hints of generational change grow into a mass movement?

The boycott of the Russian presidential elections

The protests followed a decision to bar Navalny from the presidential race, and his subsequent call for an election boycott. There is not much data available as yet to evaluate the effectiveness of the boycott. But we can make a preliminary assessment based on voter turnout and mass demonstrations.

Although low turnout alone cannot bring down the Putin regime, as there has not been a minimum threshold since 2006, a high voter participation rate has become an important symbol of Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy. In December 2016, Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko announced Putin’s aim to gain a vote share of 70% in the 2018 presidential elections, with a 70% turnout goal.

Ultimately, the Russian Central Election Commission claimed the turnout to be 67.5 %, slightly higher than in 2012. So according to official data, turnout did not decrease, despite the boycott. However, the same commission also confirmed 97.5% turnout for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and other questionable results. Navalny’s Anti-corruption Foundation (FBK) made an independent calculation of voter turnout, claiming that in fact it was as low as 55%.

Even if this was the case, however, it would mean that the boycott did not manage to reduce turnout below 50%, failing to have a significant impact on the regime’s domestic legitimacy. It has also not affected Putin’s legitimacy abroad, as all of the world’s most powerful democracies recognised his electoral win.

The only way in which the boycott could potentially be seen as effective is that it brought thousands into the streets on 5 May.

The protests

“He is no Tsar to us!” crowds chanted during protests across Russia. But the demonstrations only lasted for a single day. More than 1600 people, including Alexey Navalny, were arrested. Navalny was sentenced to prison for 30 days. His close collaborators Kira Yarmysh, Ruslan Shaveddinov, Sergey Boyko, and others also ended up behind bars. Moreover, the regime proposed further restrictions on protests by establishing the minimum age for participation at 18.

In this context, opposition activities seem almost meaningless, as they rarely achieve their political goals. The demonstration did not have any considerable impact on the ruling regime, its leaders went to prison, and it might have contributed to further tightening of the already restrictive laws. However, in the long term, the effects may be more interesting.

The role of the youth

At the present time, a critical mass demanding change probably does not exist among Russian youth. Some polls from 2017 suggested that the approval of Putin among the younger generation was actually 86%, even higher than the countrywide average of 81%. This surprising statistic may be related to the general climate of political apathy and ignorance among Russians, anti-Western propaganda by the regime, and a lack of successful examples of democratic activism.

However, there is a small liberal, democratically-minded minority comprised of between 5 and 7 percent of Russian youth that is politically and socially active. They not only participate in anti-regime demonstrations, but also take part in organising them all over Russia. They are genuinely interested in political change, mainly in relation to omnipresent corruption. This dissatisfied youth does not necessarily support Navalny, but still attends his rallies as the only way to present its grievances. Unlike the majority which is most likely to simply go with the flow, under the right conditions, this group can eventually become a driver of political change.

The role of the Internet

State television is the primary source of information for most Russians, and is thus the Putin regime’s primary means of manipulating voter behaviour. Significantly however, the young do not follow state television as much as their parents and grandparents: in 2017, only 24 % of Russians aged between 18 and 24 saw TV as their main reference point.

Instead, the new generation avidly uses the Internet, where freedom of speech remains relatively untouched. Navalny’s YouTube channel provides him with a platform to reveal the corrupt affairs of Russian officials, organise protests and gain significant popularity. Social networks play a huge role in bringing people together for the demonstrations and proliferation of news outside the state’s propaganda framework.

The Kremlin is aware that it needs to solve the problem of its diminishing influence over the youth. German Klimenko, a Presidential advisor on this topic, promotes the idea of tight control over Russia’s Internet (also known as Runet), inspired by the approaches of China and Iran. Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal executive body responsible for oversight of media and telecommunications, has already launched a crusade against web freedom.

Risk of a backlash

Recently, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) demanded that the popular Russian messenger service Telegram provide the private chat histories of several users. Telegram’s owners refused. As a result, the authorities blocked the platform. The response from the public was dramatic: around 12,000 people attended a demonstration in Moscow on 30 April. Navalny made a speech there, although he did not organise the protests. A second demonstration took place on 13 May, but with only 2,000 participants it was already much smaller.

Nonetheless, this is a glaring example of the backlash that can emerge if the Putin regime decides to put limits on Runet. If attempts to block just one popular messaging service can cause an upwsing of unrest, more extensive blocking could lead to more persistent and powerful protests. Evidence suggests that an open Internet is one of the most important defining features of Russia’s younger generation’s personal liberty. The Kremlin is in a bind: it needs to control people’s access to free information in order to avoid genuine opposition from gaining momentum, but risks stoking unrest by the very act of doing so.

As time goes on and generational change looms in Russia, more formerly apathetic young Russians will likely be willing to support and engage in protest activity as controls on the internet and their perceived personal liberties tighten.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Andre Martirosyan

Andre Martirosyan is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Conflict Studies at London School of Economics and Political Science. In 2017 he worked at Demos, a London-based think-tank, assisting with research. Previously, he has also worked at the European Parliament for Czech MEP, Jaromir Stetina, who was primarily focused on European security and human rights in the post-Soviet space. Moreover, he served as an intern for a political party in the Czech Parliament and has also worked at the Armenian embassy in Prague. Andre obtained his BA in Politics, Sociology, and East European Studies from University College London. He speaks Czech, Russian, English, French, and Western Armenian.