Sunday, April 14, 2013

Window on Eurasia: What Public Activism Looks Like Outside of Moscow – the Case of Karelia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 14 – Most assessments of public activism outside of Moscow are made using a Moscow yardstick, and if there are few or no actions resembling those in the Russian capital, many people are prepared to write off those living in the regions and republics of the Russian Federation as fundamentally passive.

            But a survey of recent developments in Karelia by “Osobaya bukhva” posted on Friday suggests there is a great deal of public activism going on in what many continue to dismiss as “the provinces,” even if it does not always look “political” like what is taking place in Moscow (

            The “Osobaya bukhva” portal often focuses on events in Russia’s regions and republics, but typically, it considers a single event rather than all the events occurring in a particular place at any one time. Friday’s article is an exception reflecting what its compilers say is “the stormy social life and variety of information sources” about Karelia over the last few weeks.

            Some of those events elicit laughter, the compilers say; others, anger; but collectively, they reveal both serious problems in the relationship between the people and the powers that be and an increasing willingness of the former to seek ways to challenge the latter in order to get their way.

            The first case involves a long-running dispute between residents of an apartment block and a store owner who built his facility in a way that violated the property rights of the apartment owners.  They went to court and won, but then, one of those who had brought the case took some money from the builder and withdrew (

            That led to a reversal in court, but it only added to the anger of the residents.  Prosecutors weighed in on their side and sued the store owner ( But despite losing in court, the store owner refused to tear down the building as the judges had ordered (

            Residents then staged a hunger strike to attract attention to this illegality and to demand that officials who were protecting the store owner be punished.  That led to a meeting between the residents and the head of the republic, the mayor of Petrozavodsk, the republic ombudsman, procuracy officials, and others.

            Initially, residents said, the head of the republic was not supportive. But after he heard what they had to say, he “understood that he had to get involved in this case of illegal construction.”  He created a working group of residents and officials to come up with a plan and gave them two weeks to do so.

            The residents say they will keep up the pressure by resuming their hunger strike, and they note that if the commission doesn’t do its job, they and the city procurator will go back to court two weeks from now to try to force officials to comply with the law.

            The second Karelian case concerns public unhappiness with the PAZ buses now used in Petrozavodsk.  As “Osobaya Bukhva” notes, they “really are not the best buses even among domestically produced vehicles.” In Moscow, they are used to transport those under arrest, but in Karelia and other regions, they carry law-abiding citizens.

            Most people in the regions put up with this because they feel they have no choice, but “the Petrazavodsk residents are not like that.” They have protested about the noise and pollution and discomfort of these buses and are currently circulating a petition to have these machines taken off the road and replaced with better ones.

            “There is no need to transport people like animals,” the petitioners say. “We deserve better,” and city officials need to listen to us rather than “decide for us” about such things (

            The PAZ dispute has only gotten worse, “Osobaya bukhva” notes, because city officials decide to use one of its buses for an ambulance. But doctors and nurses have very publically pointed out that the buses are too noisy for their patients to rest or even for nurses to hear their hearts beating (

            The third Karelian case is less clear-cut as an example of popular protest, but it does represent a situation in which local people are furious about what officials and especially one with no academic background are doing as they work to combine the republic pedagogical academy with the Petrozavodsk University (

            Faculty and students are upset by what they see as a high-handed approach to destroy the Finnish and Karelian language faculties of the pedagogical institute and to do so without consultation with those most directly affected or even informing the public about the steps officials are taking. 
            The final Karelian case from last week concerns a call for medical workers there to declare “an Italian strike” in the manner of their colleagues in the Republic of Udmurtia to protest demands by their bosses that they treat far too many patients per hour than they can if they are to cure them (

            Whether the strike will spread remains unclear, but one aspect of this report is especially interesting: Doctors and nurses in Karelia are attending to developments among their counterparts in another Finno-Ugric republic, precisely the kind of inter-republic and inter-regional cooperation Moscow is most afraid of.

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