Staunton, April 21 – When Russians go into the streets to protest as they have most recently in Vladikavkaz, the Russian government moves quickly with the police arresting large numbers of participants and the Kremlin denouncing such violations of public order. And with the self-isolation orders, relatively few people are choosing to engage in such demonstrations.
But because popular anger is mounting, Russians have found another way to express their fury: they are organizing virtual actions online against the current regime of self-isolation by posting critical commentaries on the sites of regional adminstrations (club-rf.ru/detail/4035novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/04/20/85010-hotim-est-raboty-net and globalvoices.org/2020/04/20/russians-launch-mass-protests-using-satnav-application/).
Such virtual protests have already occurred in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Krasnodar, Samara, Krasnoyarsk, Ufa, and Yekaterinburg and may soon spread to other cities as well. Experts say that these allow people to blow off steam and thus may calm the situation; but others suggest that they could become tools in the political struggle.
That will happen, they suggest, if “the opposition can seize the wave of such online meetings” and, building upon them, ultimately take people into the streets, not only in protest against self-isolation but about other problems as well. Thus, what is happening now is a testing out of a new means of political action.
Political analyst Alyona Avgust tells the Club RF group that online protests are part of the new reality that pandemic has given rise to but that they are quite likely to continue after the coronavirus crisis passes and be used to protest other things. The authorities will prefer it if it drains off interest in street protests but not if it feeds into them.
A major test will be whether the opposition is able to capitalize on this form of spontaneous protest or instead views if as something beyond its scope. That could be a disaster for the current opposition: “new times give rise to new heroes, and it’s possible we will see the actions of new small parties which were registered not long ago.”
Andrey Bogdanov, another political analyst, says that this form of protest will work only on Internet resources that the regime doesn’t control. Those it controls can quickly take down anything citizens put up. Indeed, it has long experience in doing that. But on others, citizen protests of this type may spread and even give rise to real street demonstrations.
That is what the authorities clearly fear, Bogdanov continues.
Yekaterina Kolesnikov, head of the North-West Expert Analytic Center, agrees, both about the controls and about the possibility that the online protests will grow into street demonstrations. People will become more accustomed to expressing their anger, and the shift from one kind of protest to the other will be easier.
That is what makes these virtual protests so important. They are a school for broader political action.