Thousands protested in Moscow last week against attempts to disqualify prominent opposition politicians from running for seats in the Moscow City Duma in September. Law enforcement beat up and jailed hundreds of them. The story is not over, but the way the authorities reacted provides useful takeaways on the Kremlin’s strategy regarding Russia’s newest protest movements – or the lack thereof.
On 27 July thousands of people marched in Moscow to support opposition candidates whom the authorities are trying to keep off the ballot in the September election to the City Duma. Authorities arrested more than 1,300 protesters. Police and especially riot police under the command of the National Guard used excessive force against them. Scenes of police brutality flooded the Russian internet, even as, as Mark Galeotti pointed out, law enforcement was careful not to use tear gas and rubber bullets in order not to create the impression of a besieged city and there was a lack of a clear chain of command. Several leading opposition politicians remain in custody, including candidates whose disqualification initially triggered the protests, and notably Alexei Navalny who may also have been poisoned. Yet the Moscow city hall authorized another protest to take place on Saturday, albeit at a less prominent location and opposition candidates may still make it onto the ballot if their appeals are granted.
What does the reaction of the authorities to the protests tell us?
First, Russia’s government does not seem to have a grand strategy to deal with the present incarnation of the protest movement, which – with the notable exception of last year’s pension reform – is focused on local issues. The strategy followed in Moscow after the 2011-12 protest movement – an almost twofold increase in the capital’s budget that bankrolled a 200-billion-ruble facelift – initially seemed to work but later clearly failed, which caused disappointment in the Kremlin. Far from being placated and pacified by Sergei Sobyanin’s urban visions, Muscovites voted several opposition candidates into office in the 2017 elections to municipal councils. This year they turned out in large numbers to support Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist who was briefly jailed in a botched attempt by the police to incriminate him. They also looked set to deliver victories to opposition candidates in September. The president to whose office the National Guard is subordinated apparently decided to draw a line. However, the authorities followed different strategies in different regions: in Yekaterinburg protests over the construction of an orthodox church in a park led to the cancellation of the project following a green light from Putin; in the Primorsky Krai where last year a candidate of the Communist Party appeared to have defeated the incumbent governor endorsed by the Kremlin, the authorities doubled down, cancelled the election results and stole the re-run for a more competent substitute. In recent years, a crisis of political responsibility corroded the power vertical and created the impression that if citizens want to achieve change, they should appeal to Putin directly by protesting. The Kremlin clearly wants to avoid the proliferation of such protests, but is unable and unwilling to use force always and everywhere. If there was a strategic rationale behind the crackdown on protesters in Moscow it was probably the intent to show that while certain grassroots actions are allowed, the authorities still can and will use force against protesters whose demands question the fundamentals of the power vertical, especially if the protest is deemed unjustified.
This takes us to the second takeaway. By first using excessive force against protesters and jailing hundreds of them and then allowing a second protest to go ahead, the Kremlin may be trying to suffocate the protest movement slowly rather than hoping to kill it with a bang (which they probably could not do without incurring steep political costs). Massive arrests may scare people into staying home; a less prominent location and the absence of jailed opposition leaders downgrade the significance of the protests. Success is not guaranteed, but the authorities are hoping to follow the pattern established in 2011-12 when the Bolotnaya Square protests, which were tolerated, then violently broken up and which then fizzled out.
Third, there seems to be an attempt to diminish the single biggest achievement of the democratic opposition since 2012: the establishment of a bridge between the opposition movements in the capital and protest movements at the countryside, which saw Alexei Navalny’s campaign open dozens of offices in regions with barely any prior opposition activity as well as coordinated protests against the government’s pension reform last year. Both by selectively punishing protesters – with participants from outside Moscow reportedly getting harsher sentences – and by denying Muscovites the presidential goodwill that residents of other regions were seemingly entitled to, the authorities seem to be trying to drive a wedge between the capital and the regions.
It is unclear whether the Kremlin will succeed in avoiding the bigger evil by denying opposition candidates a place on the ballot. Arguably, if allowed to participate and then elected, opposition deputies would not only score a symbolic victory that risks whetting the appetite of the opposition in other cities and regions, but they would also be able to keep a closer eye on how Moscow’s astronomical budget is spent. Both the Kremlin and the City Hall thus potentially stand to lose a lot if they give the opposition too much breathing space, not to mention other regional leaders with stakes in the city’s budget (e.g. Tatarstan’s president Rustam Minnikhanov whose ally, Murat Khusnullin oversees urban development projects as deputy mayor). However, it is difficult to tell if the Kremlin has a calculated strategy or not. As the president and his entourage get increasingly insecure following the developments of the past year, they will be increasingly reactive and increasingly likely to commit mistakes.