Where Will Russia's Protests Lead?

Rally in Kaliningrad, March 26, 2017. Wikimedia Commons/Westpress Kaliningrad archive/Alexandr Podgorchuk, Klops.ru/CC-BY-SA 4.0

The anticorruption wave could give way to greater instability.

The contemporary Russian ruling elite certainly does not proclaim its special rights, since formally all are equal before the law. However, the formal law is not applied in many cases, or applied only to the lower classes, whose representatives are often punished for corruption. At the same time, higher-level bureaucrats seem to be immune to investigation despite some well-known irregularities. Since the beginning of the century, only one top official at the level of minister has been under investigation, and even in this case, it is unclear if he will stand trial. The described traditional class system also works for the lower levels. The incomes of heads of state companies, schools, universities and hospitals in contemporary Russia are often up to ten times higher than those of ordinary workers, professors, doctors and teachers. Despite not being exempt from prosecution, these people form another group that receives a high “rent” and maintains an interest in encouraging the lower classes to comply. The contradiction between the formal law and informal rules of real life instil a kind of cognitive dissonance in young Russians. In school, they are taught how society should function, but the reality has very little to do with this academic ideal.

The current protests are relatively small in scale. The number of participants is much lower than tens of thousands in 2011–13, or the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, in the later years of the Soviet Union. But the reasons and motives are similar. The protesters are not fighting for establishing a law-based democratic state, but for social justice and against the excessive privileges of the ruling elite. Such slogans have always been popular in the post-Soviet space, and brought many leaders to power, from Boris Yeltsin to Aleksandr Lukashenko and Mikheil Saakashvili, neither of whom managed to create a significantly fairer society.

For Putin’s leadership, however, these protests are a serious warning. If it is not able to improve the economy and secure economic growth, dissatisfaction will rise. For the moment, it has only spread to a narrow group of educated people in the larger cities. According to opinion polls, the majority of the population in small towns and medium-sized cities, where the bulk of Russia’s population lives, supports Putin’s policies. They are attracted to his active foreign policy and see the demand for more rights as yet another fantasy of pretentious Moscow intellectuals. They fail to see any alternative to the status quo, and are thankful to Putin’s leadership for stabilizing the country after the mess of the 1990s. However, if the standard of living continues to stagnate, or even fall, this silent majority may join the dissatisfied. This could make future protests more populous—and less peaceful.

Alexander Lukin is head of the Department of International Relations at National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

Image: Rally in Kaliningrad, March 26, 2017. Wikimedia Commons/Westpress Kaliningrad archive/Alexandr Podgorchuk, Klops.ru/CC-BY-SA 4.0