Staunton, March 23 – The Kremlin’s strategy of allowing people to demonstrate on behalf of almost anything as long as they get permission from the authorities in advance because the regime has no intention of listening to the people who take part in them is no longer working in the way Vladimir Putin planned, according to Sergey Shelin.
The Rosbalt commentator says that for the first few years after the large protests in 2011-2012 each side was prepared to play its role, but now those going into the streets over issues like the return of St. Isaac’s to the Moscow Patriarchate are no longer willing to take part in such staged events (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2017/03/21/1600701.html).
On the one hand, they are increasingly chafing at Moscow’s rules about where, when and how they can demonstrate, Shelin says; and on the other – and this poses a more serious challenge to the regime – they are no longer willing to have their demands ignored by the powers that be.
Until recently, the authorities were quite prepared to look on any protests for which they had given approval as just another form of public action as in those on state holidays. And they were even willing to “find a place” in the system for Internet petitions calling for this or that action.
Both the regime and the protesters were satisfied by this. Citizens could register their unhappiness in a largely risk free way, and the powers that be could present themselves as tolerant of democratic principles and advertise themselves as committed to the right of people to assemble and protest.
“A formula of mutual saving face was developed: we will not punish you for any demands, even radical ones,” the authorities said, “on condition that you submit them in a form we set and with an understanding that we will decide what to do with them subsequently.”
According to Shelin, “for several years, this worked.” But in the last year it has begun to fall apart first in the case of the long-haul truckers who having had their demands ignored responded in “a non-traditional way.” Instead of going off and drinking coffee, “they began to make demands.” Some were arrested but “after the strike the tariffs were lowered.”
“This was a lesson for all,” the Rosbalt commentator says.
On the one hand, it became clear that there were some kinds of protest that the authorities simply wouldn’t permit. But on the other, it came to be recognized in Russian society that protesters had a chance to win out if the authorities were divided or if the protesters showed that they were ready to continue and that “social struggle is not a ritual,” but something real.
“The inviolable unity of the power machine in most cases is an illusion,” Shelin says. The St. Isaac’s case is one of those; that of the leadership of the Academy of Sciences is yet another. And because the opponents of a particular course have remained united in both cases, there is a chance that one or the other will win through.
Consequently, protests are no longer the ritual they once were. People taking part in them expect to be listened to. And they won’t be put off by orders that they shift where they demonstrate or not demonstrate at all, even and perhaps especially in the case of opposition political figures like Aleksey Navalny who wants to prove he isn’t a regime “puppet.”
Clearly, Shelin concludes, “the authorities are approaching a decision pont: either they can learn to take the attitudes of people into consideration or they can dispense with any ceremony and use force against all who oppose them on anything.” That is a big “fork in the road” that the officials helped to create with their strategy of permitted protests.