Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Middle Volga Emerges as Major Center of Russian Protests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 26 – The Middle Volga region is emerging as a major center of protest activity in the Russian Federation, the product of the coming together of three factors: the increasing number of visits to the region by all-Russian opposition figures, social and economic protests by local people, and uncertainty among officials as to how to respond.

            That is the conclusion of Aleksey Glukhov, a lawyer for the Agora International Human Rights Group, as presented in a major article on the IdelReal.org portal today (idelreal.org/a/protest-v-rossii-2017/28748438.html). (His findings are supported by reports from other regions including the Transbaikal – see babr24.com/kras/?IDE=165435.)

            Glukhov points out that the Middle Volga like Russia as a whole saw a precipitous decline in protest activity between 2012 and 2016 but that “the situation began to change at the end of law year and in this one there has been a growth in such activity,” something that reflects a combination of factors.

            First of all, the authorities have changed the rules governing the approval of applications for holding meetings and their use of force against activists.  But the real key to understanding what is going on is this, the Agora lawyer says: one can classify protest actions by their initiators.

            These include: supporters of opposition candidate Aleksey Navalny, Open Russia, the long-haul truckers, actions by specific political parties and the KPRF in particular, depositors and debtors. The first two are “exclusively political” but the rest have “a social-economic coloration” that “doesn’t exclude political demands.”

            According to Glukhov, “statistics of the last few years clearly show that social protest is less often subjected to repression, and if it is conducted under the aegis of a political party that has representation in the State Duma, then it is subject only to selective persecution.” And in some cases, the authorities choose not to move against it, even if they haven’t given permission.

            And after detailing protests in the region over the last year, he draws the following conclusion: “there was no single centralized command from Moscow for repression. The regional authorities not accustomed to work on the federal agenda without guidance were forced to act independently.”

            Some took a hard line; others a much softer one. And those who were ready to protest responded by adapting themselves to what the authorities were permitting, although in many cases, they were not intimidated by the detention or arrest of protest leaders. The authorities thus had to recognize that accommodation was more likely to work than harsh crackdowns.

            In the course of the first half of this year, he says, officials in the various republics and oblasts of the Middle Volga “recognized that they could not bring cases against all those going into the street to protest and that fines alone already would not stop even the ordinary citizen. Therefore, today, the authorities have chosen a position of active containment of street protest.”

            On the one hand, the authorities generally try not to agree to many meetings they fear may get out of hand; and on the other, they target particular leaders with arrests in hopes of discouraging others from following them. But this combination has had only “a small effect” and hasn’t led to the weakening of the protest movement in the Middle Volga.

            More protests in the Middle Volga are likely, and the authorities if left to their own devices will be increasingly cautious in dealing with them, Glukhov says.

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