Russia has been experiencing a fresh wave of tumult over the past weekend as a protest rally took place on Saturday about upcoming Moscow municipal elections. The Russian authorities banned over a dozen candidates from participating in the September elections and alleged that numerous signatures to qualify for the ballot were forged. Over 1,300 demonstrators were arrested and opposition leader Alexei Navalny hospitalized on Sunday; his lawyer is stating that Navalny was poisoned while imprisoned.
What are the implications of the protests and the elections? Does the Russian government face mounting opposition to its rule? What is Russian president Vladimir Putin contemplating as he confronts new parliamentary elections in 2021?
To answer such questions, National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn turned to Konstantin Remchukov, an authority on Russian politics and the proprietor and editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an influential daily newspaper. He is also the chairman of the Moscow Public Chamber, a top advisory body to the city government. You can follow him at: @KVRemchukov.
Remchukov describes himself on Twitter in the following terms: “My own views and opinions. Imposed by no one but my life experience/interests.”
Jacob Heilbrunn: How significant were the demonstrations in Moscow on Saturday about the Moscow municipal elections?
Konstantin Remchukov: They were significant. Several thousand people protested. But, from my point of view, the most significant thing that I could see this time was that those young people who came out on the street were absolutely fearless. It was the first time that I saw people who did not care about whether or not they would be taken into custody or arrested by the police. This is new--that people go out, and that they believe that standing for their positions—especially moral positions—was more important than anything else. And it is a very, very stark shift in the mood of this young generation.
Heilbrunn: To what do you ascribe this shift? Why has it occurred?
Remchukov: It has occurred more systemically. Recent public opinion polls and research show that over the last year several fundamental changes have taken place in Russian life. For example, one year ago in March, when they re-elected President Putin, the material demands of people were a top priority in the Russian Federation. And if you look today--in spring 2019--then it is not material things but the demand for freedom that is paramount. In my view, this shift is quite amazing.
When asked, 59 percent responded “no limitations on personal freedom” versus a good economic situation. That was their number one concern. Nor is this all. Another thing which is very interesting is that according to the polls, 84 percent of Russians say they want to personally contribute to the improvement of the situation of the country. We've never had such a mood.
We’ve all heard about the inclusive democracy, but now 84 percent of people say they want it--and believe that they can make a difference if they participate in political life. Now, eight out of ten people believe something depends on us. Eight out of ten people are ready to wait for a good five years until the situation improves, but on the condition that they understand what kind of changes will be implemented.
Before that, people didn’t want to pick a fight for any reform for any improvement—they said, in effect, “no, no, no, we don’t trust reforms. Give us our sausages, our material things.” And now they say, “ok if I understand what is going to happen, I am willing to suffer five years if those good things will happen.” So this is a new thing for Russia.
Then there’s the factor of Crimea. For so many years, what I call the Crimea factor determined the mood of the Russian people. And now, most of the people—those in focus groups—would say that Crimea, the Olympic Games in Sochi, and the World Cup last year ultimately did not have a substantial impact on their lives.
In the last three or four months, for the first time, we in Moscow really can see what being middle-class means. For so many years we have heard about the middle-class and its role in the life of a modern society, but nobody knew what that was. And everybody in their research groups underlined the material factor—how much money the middle-class earned.
It is the responsible class. It is the class that cares about the future, the future of their children, it doesn’t avoid responsibility, it less dependent on government assistance and government money. And it appears that the government doesn’t know how to react to the demand of the middle-class to participate in determining how Russia should be governed.
Heilbrunn: So, when you say the government doesn’t know how to react, it seems the interpretation by many here in the United States has been that the Kremlin is now demonstrating that it is willing to use force in a much more lethal fashion. Is that interpretation correct?
Remchukov: No. When I say that the government doesn’t know how to react, I’m more inclined to say the following: the middle class of today is very much integrated into social media. Social media—the platform of spreading information, spreading values, goals, and examples of how other countries live—requires immediate reaction of all parties involved in this exchange of opinion. And a feature of government in Russia--especially under Russian president Vladimir Putin who is a secret agent who doesn’t like to speak and who doesn’t like people who speak--is that there are not a lot of talkative people around here.
The government manipulates the television with the emphasis on their major voters, who are dependent upon television--instead of reading the paper and social media. On television, the government uses the language of propaganda.
But the language of propaganda does not work on social media. Take the reaction for two or three years when there was a scandal with a documentary film about Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's alleged acts that was disseminated by opposition activist Alexei Navalny. The principal decision of the authorities was not to raise this problem on television. That meant that 25-30 million people watched the film on the internet. But the government said: “OK, let those 25-30 million now know what happened, but the 110-120 million people who didn’t watch online will not see or hear anything on television.” And that worked. A lot of people didn’t know about that documentary and afterward, elections went ahead, and the scandal went away.
And they maybe thought that this approach—not to bring up problems which are burning for people—is a universal mechanism of how they could react to anything. When they tried this approach to the elections in Moscow, it appears that they miscalculated. That if signatures of thousands of people were not counted by the election committee, it touches not some moral thing--like the claim Medvedev did this or that--but it touched the middle class’ interests. This is because the middle class, the responsible class that wanted to participate in the elections, wanted to shape the government and parliament. And the government, the central authorities, they didn’t know how to deal with that.
They were silent on television. But they did not enforce silence on the internet. They didn’t develop the technology or communications to respond. They didn’t develop their own speakers or a message. So the government tried to be silent. That approach worked two years ago, but it didn’t work today because people communicated and they don’t see anyone online or on television who stood up for the government position. The government should have come up with some rational arguments about why it discarded so many signatures and should prove it. They should come out on television and on the internet and show the pages where the false signatures were collected. But they don’t do that and, of course, this approach is obsolete. They can’t come up with the right language to communicate and deal with the new middle class.
Heilbrunn: Would these developments prompt you to say that Russia is in a state resembling 1905, when a constitutional revolution took place?
Remchukov: Not at all. I think that the situation has changed very much. I think, first of all, unlike the previous cases like 1905, 1917, 1991, today there is no deficit of day-to-day goods for people’s lives. This is because huge, private capital changed this sphere called personal consumption. So there’s no deficit and when there is one, people are inclined to protest against power in huge numbers.
Many say that at the end of February 1917, when there was a shortage of bread in St. Petersburg the people came out into the streets on the first day it was warm and then the February revolution took place. But their reasons were very material—no bread, no butter, no food, no shoes—and, now, their reasons are not. So the basis of Russia’s economy has changed fundamentally.
Number two factor, we have a very strong ruble. Every time there is a revolution there was also the so-called “paper ruble”—a ruble that was worth nothing. Now the ruble is one of the strongest currencies in the world and Europe.