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Beating a Dead Horse? The Future of Russian Protests

Date posted: Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Thousands turned out to protest in Russia and it didn’t end pretty. What’s next?

Photograph by David Szakonyi

Photograph by David Szakonyi

ViolencePolice brutality! Suppression of human rights! Arbitrary detention! Beatings!

Yet another opposition protest crushed in the center of Moscow.

It’s Putin’s own fault really. Strategic error, if you will. The vast majority of the nearly 20,000 protesters had exited long before, back to warmer dens after a quick drop-in after work. The hardcore, though, 500 strong and led by leader-celebrities, surrounded the fountain at the center of Pushkin Square in Moscow. They eagerly threw themselves into the pit of riot police lions, and the lions surely erred in their enthusiasm for the hunt. The order to move in with force was handed down, but it didn’t need to be. After all, it was fifteen degrees outside and late on a Monday night. Granted, a passive response to recalcitrant protesters could be seen as weakness; fears of a tent city movement could not be discounted. Given the tendency of Western media to sensationalize clashes between a presumed police state and its opponents, all it takes is one misstep to lose another battle in the information war.

But can the opposition movement capitalize on another slew of viral images and videos documenting the (slightly) disproportionate use of force?

They had come out yet again to decry fraudulent, unfair elections, this time held the day before. The infrastructure of the event itself glistened with punchy graphic design and non-threatening (not live!) tunes. But no slogans or chants got anywhere near earworm territory. Speeches seemed perfectly structured to give each aspiring politico a few pandering sound bites to the crowd—without any crescendo to a culminating keynote. Most of those gathered—in large part either under 25 or over 55 years of age—peacefully and efficiently left the plaza even before the official rally permit expired. Those who remained were felled by the overwhelming police presence. In summary, to us outside observers, it appears that the movement is in danger of losing steam.

Returning to Moscow last week, just in time for election fanfare, we had expected tension to be hanging ominously in the air. Two days prior, thousands had literally encircled the city in a novel demonstration of the movement’s growing strength. What we’ve found, however, is that the opposition, though creative and dynamic, still lacks the tools to successfully challenge the regime. After three months of media attention showers, opposition leaders simply have not derived an alternative platform, or for that matter any rallying cry besides “Russia without Putin.” Too many egos compete for the top post, each contributing their own resolute group of adulators to the vibrant, but fragmented umbrella: liberal, communist, nationalist, radical left, libertarian, social democrat. Even the organizational capacity feels thin. We nerdy researchers went out of our way to collect pamphlets, manifestos, and souvenirs; the only literature we left with were dense manuals on fighting corruption, an unmarked white ribbon, and a Hari Krishna book in Russian.

So what’s next for the months ahead? Alexei Navalny, spiritual leader of the movement, was promptly freed from detention along with the rest of the unfortunates. His attendance will be assured at the next round of demonstrations this Saturday, March 10; preliminary estimates have the crowd reaching up to 40,000. Some have spoken of such weekly protests for the foreseeable future or of Occupy Wall Street-style permanence once spring arrives. However, the fact that these elections appear to be relatively cleaner than last year’s parliamentary elections (even many independents admit that Putin would have won handily regardless) could take the wind out of the protest movement’s sails. Momentum is changing quickly and unless immediate actions are taken, Putin may consolidate his already strengthened upper hand.

[pinit]


David Szakonyi is a Ph.D. student in comparative politics at Columbia University. His research mainly focuses on the economic policies of dictators, though has been known to stretch into all things post-Soviet and quantitative. Currently, he is dividing his time between New York and Moscow with random sojourns into eccentric autocracies. He is learning to tweet here.

View all posts by David Szakonyi →


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Why We’re Doing This

Blogs abound about Russian politics, and mostly they are written by astute, witty observers. Go on Twitter and you’ll be amazed at the community of devotees dedicated, in real-time, to dissecting the latest developments in the Putin saga. However, what we hope to do here over the coming weeks is something a bit more primary-sourced: informed musings on all things election-related from a student/scholar on the ground in Moscow, conducting research and compiling anecdotes, interviews, viral videos, and off-the-cuff analysis of this exciting 2012 presidential campaign.