Saturday, May 7, 2016

Seven Reasons Maris Give for Not Taking Part in Demonstrations Don’t Hold Up, Commentator Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 7 – “A multitude of myths” has arisen concerning public demonstrations that people in the Middle Volga Finno-Ugric Republic of Mari El give for not taking part, Natalya Petrova says; but none of them stand up to examination and all appear to reflect either laziness or fear on the part of those who invoke them.

            She examines seven of them and, both by her own arguments and those of her interlocutors, demolishes them, thereby providing one of the most powerful arguments in a mainstream publication in Russia for people to take part in protests more regularly (

            The first argument Maris often make is that “’these meetings change nothing.’”  It is true, Petrova says that a single meeting isn’t going to solve most problems, but “already after a single  public measure, the wishes of the participants will be heard, a plan of action marked out, and completely visible and important changes will begin.”

            Kirill Pisny, an aide to the republic’s Duma representative, provides confirmation of this. He says that a single meeting of some 500 people about the low quality of roads forced the authorities to double spending on highway repair and has prompted participants to seek a public council to advise the republic government about other issues as well.

            A second argument often heard against participation is that “’my participation doesn’t play a role.’”  It is certainly true that “your voice decides nothing when it isn’t heard,” Petrova continues.  But it won’t be heard if it isn’t in public and it won’t get as much attention in isolation as in a group.

            A third argument is that “’I didn’t know’” when and where the meeting was going to be.  That can be a problem, but anyone who really wants to know can find out.  Gennady Zybkov, the second secretary of the KPRF district committee, says that republic media don’t do a good job in informing people, a position with which United Russia officials agree.

            “In our view, Aleksandr Mayrov of the ruling party says, many more people would take part if the local media did a better job of informing them. And that is important, he says, because meetings are “a quite effective form of interaction with residents assuming the act is well-thought-out, organized and there are good speakers.”

            A fourth reason Maris advance is that “’meetings are needed for the PR of politicians’” rather than for anyone else.   It is certainly true, Petrova says, that a leader is behind any idea, but if people support him via meetings, he will true to win their trust by acting on his promises. “PR is not the final goal” for either the politician or citizen. “
            “The goal of any public action,” Petrova says on the basis of conversations with political technologists, “is not to do something beautifully and loudly” but rather to increase attention to problems, propose solutions, “and further take under control changes.”  The leader and the led have a mutual interest in all of these.

            A fifth reason often given against participation is that “’I don’t like the party or public figure who is organizing the demonstration.’”  No public meeting is “created by the forces of one individual. One must think more broadly, abstracting from the individual and rise to the level of the idea of the demonstration.”

            A sixth reason, Petrova says, involves fears that “’one can be fined or jailed for taking part in a meeting.’”  In meetings that have been approved in advance by the authorities, “participation is not dangerous.” It is constitutionally protected. And the number of people fined or otherwise punished in Mari El is quite low.

            Last year, acting republic interior minister Andrey Bratukhin says, only 12 residents of Mari El were held administratively responsible for actions involving protests. When their cases came to trial, the courts fined most of them and only one was required to do community service. So far this year, there have been no such cases at all.

            Yevgeny Pirogov, a Ioshkar-Ola activist and frequent protester, agrees: He has had no problems when he has taken part in demonstrations.  And he believes more people should speak out.  “Your opinion,” he says, “may be quite different from that of the majority or the program of those in power. But if you are only one, this does not mean that you are not right.”

            “Personally, Pirogov continues, “I consider that for a worthy future for our children, one can risk both one’s freedom and health.”

            And the seventh excuse Petrova examines is that “’I live at the edge of town and don’t know anything.’”  That simply isn’t what a growing number of Maris think.  Since 2012, the number ready to take part in meetings has gone up more than four times.  There were 51 demonstrations in the republic in 2014, and 54 in 2015.

            This unusual article prompts three observations:

·         First of all, cast in the way that it is, it is little more than the kind of good citizenship recommendations offered by public organizations in many countries rather than a call to protest.

·         Second, given the problems many Maris have with their republic head, it is possible that this is nothing more than a way to make him or at least his regime look more responsive to the population than in fact it is.

·         But third, by calling into question the arguments against participation people make and suggesting they reflect inertia or misplaced fear, Petrova’s article is likely to have the effect of causing more people to take to the streets.  It will be interesting to see if it is repeated elsewhere.

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