NY Dispatches: The protest in Yekaterinburg

One of the most remarkable protest actions of the past decade seems to be unfolding in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city this week, where thousands of locals protest the construction of a church on what is now a green area. The developments tell a lot about the present and the future of protest movements in Russia. 

Today marked the third day of protests in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city against the construction of an orthodox church on what is now a public park. The third night of the protest has drawn thousands of people (according to one report “up to fifteen thousand”), making it one of the most significant protests of the past years in Russia; quite remarkable, especially given that it was sparked by a local issue. And it does not look like protesters are going anywhere, despite various attempts by the authorities either to find common ground with them or to break up the protests, and despite a very telling warning from the city’s deputy mayor that by turning Yekaterinburg into a rebellious city, residents put federally funded investments at risk.

Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, has long been exceptional in terms of civic activism. Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of the city in 2013-18 won an election campaigning against corruption in the police and for an effective anti-drug policy that punished dealers instead of users. As mayor he often relied on grassroots organizations in face of hostility from Moscow before he resigned in protest against the abolition of direct mayoral elections. The fact that thousands of local residents have taken to the streets to protest against a questionable urban development project should not, therefore, be very surprising.

And yet, what is happening in Yekaterinburg is interesting because of what it says about the present of protest movements in Russia and what is suggests about their future. This may be the biggest, but definitely not the first significant protest in recent years, triggered by an issue of local significance or a miscalculation by local authorities. Last year saw protests in Kemerovo against local corruption following a deadly fire in a shopping mall; protests in Volokolamsk near Moscow against a toxic waste dump; protests in Magash, the capital of Ingushetia against a murky border deal with Chechnya. In all cases, spontaneously erupting anger over a local issue fed into a larger discussion at the federal level: the real-world consequences of official neglect, the unresolved issue of waste collection as well as Moscow’s privileges over other regions, the unchecked power of certain members of the political elite, and, in the case of Yekaterinburg, the cozy relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state, which many protesters, even if those who simply wanted to protect a green area, were reportedly busy discussing. This matters, because similar issues are omnipresent in Russia and news of the protests have spread even though big television channels have done their utmost to keep silent about them. On the second day of the Yekaterinburg protests, the mayor of Krasnoyarsk, some 2,300 km away, decided not to cede a public square to the Church, presumably fearing local unrest.

Second, local authorities and law enforcement seem to be clueless. 29 people were reportedly arrested and at least two have been convicted in Yekaterinburg, but this apparently did not scare people away, even though the stakes are fairly low. Neither did cameras, rumoured to be equipped with face recognition technology, thugs or the riot police, which protesters seem to be quite relaxed about. It is as if locals had decided to stand their ground over a relatively minor issue, simply because they feel cornered; similarly to last year’s surprising electoral upsets when voters in certain regions and cities cast their votes on “dummy” candidates to send an angry message to the federal government.

As policymaking in the Presidential Administration, Russia’s most important executive institution is increasingly focused on protecting the president as a person and as an institution rather than strategic planning, it seems inevitable that protests such as the one in Yekaterinburg will multiply and become bolder. This might make an insecure president and the organizations created to protect him increasingly trigger-happy; but fears of an escalation, especially when a “local” issue is present in several other regions, may also lead to indecision.

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