Staunton, June 4 – A new Levada Center poll simultaneously suggests that the traditional breakdown between social and political protests is breaking down, that the share of Russians willing to take part in both is growing, and that the shares with direct experience of protests and closely following protests elsewhere is still relatively small.
As a result, the poll results present something for everyone from those who believe that Russia now faces a new wave of protests that is growing into a revolutionary challenge to the regime to those who argue that the actual protests are far fewer but more mediagenic than the smaller but more numerous protests at the time of pension reform.
That makes distinguishing between the numbers and the commentaries ever more important, something that is not always carefully done in the media, with those observers who have one position selecting out the results that agree with them and ignoring data from the same poll that don’t.
The actual results, published by the Levada Center, are both complicated and interesting (levada.ru/2019/06/04/protestnyj-potentsial-9/). Among the most significant are the following:
· Slightly more Russians now than in February say they are prepared to participate in protests about the decline in their standard of living (27 percent against 26 percent) and in protests with political agenda (22 percent against 20 percent).
· The share considering mass protests on these two subjects likely has declined from 34 percent to 26 percent regarding living conditions and from 28 percent to 24 percent as far as political demonstrations are concerned.
· Eighty-seven percent say they haven’t noted any protests nearby where they live anytime in the last two to three months, 69 percent say they consider such protests unlikely and don’t intend to take part if such meetings do occur on social issues. The corresponding figures for political protests are 71 percent and 74 percent.
· Forty-two percent have heard about the Yekaterinburg protests and 17 percent say they are closely following events there. But 41 percent said that the first time they had heard about the demonstrations in the Urals city were when they were asked by the survey. Far fewer have knowledge of the protests in Shiyes or in Ingushetia, with 65 percent and 71 percent respectively saying they were hearing about them for the first time.
· Sixty-three percent think that protests are becoming larger and more numerous, while 25 percent say the reverse is true. Fifty-one percent say the number of Russians satisfied with the authorities is falling, while 11 percent believe the reverse.
Five commentaries are particularly instructive. First, Denis Volkov of the Levada Center says that he thinks the results show that Russians no longer strongly distinguish between economic and political protests and maintain that they are engaged only in the first for tactical reasons in order to get the authorities to speak with them (svpressa.ru/society/article/234549/).
If the authorities do speak with the protesters, the situation remains more or less the same, but if the powers that be ignore them or simply repress them, the sociologist continues, politicization is inevitable regardless of where those taking part in the protests have begun. The authorities often lack the resources or power to do anything and that has the same result.
Moreover, he says, protests feed upon themselves. Where there have been protests, there are thus likely to be more in the future. “Now, there are three regions which people more or less clearly distinguish: Yekaterinburg, Arkhangelsk Oblast and Ingushetia. But overall, there are not so many. There ere far more during the period of the adoption of the pension reform.”
Then, Volkov points out, there were far more protests. They were smaller but far more widespread. For better or worse, the media have suggested the contrary.
Second, political analyst Konstantin Kalachev says that the poll shows that the politicization of protest in Russia is inevitable because attitudes in society are changing. “According to Lenin, an economic crisis grows into a social one and social protest grows into political ones. That is the traditional history.”
“But now we live already in a different society. Not everything depends on economics alone.” People may be tired of those in power and of elections that do not solve anything. There is a demand for change which perhaps will not be directly connected with the life situation people find themselves in.
Thus, Kalachev continues, those who are still well-off in Russia are far more likely to be critics of the powers than are those with much lower incomes.
He also points to the demands for local control over decisions. Many Russians who want that may not be familiar with federalism but that is what they want. As Kalachev puts it, this is like the situation Moliere described when he said that people often speak prose without even knowing they are doing so.
Third, Valeriya Mikhaylova, a spokesperson for the Komi Republic KPRF organization, adds that people have to have some experience of protest against specific problems before they realize fully that the problems they face are the result of political decisions. When they do realize that, they begin to make political demands.
Fourth, Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, points out that the better informed people are about protests locally or across the country, the more likely they are to be willing to take part in demonstrations, thus making control of reporting about them critical for the regime (vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2019/06/03/803258-rossiyan-gotovnost-protestnih).
And five the Petersburg Politics Foundation says that whatever the polls show about the willingness of Russians to take part in demonstrations and protests, its own survey finds that there has been an increase in the number and size of such actions over the past month (newsru.com/russia/04jun2019/protest_rise.html).