NY Dispatches: The way ahead for Moscow

Thousands of people were arrested in Moscow for participating in protests against the disqualification of opposition candidates in the election to the city council, and later against police brutality, or simply for walking in the vicinity. This has not discouraged Muscovites from pouring out onto the streets again. The protests are not a game-changer yet, but they are shaping public discourse. The reaction of the authorities is regrettable, but it is a logical outcome of the system’s internal incentives – which also make any dialogue between the political elite and the protesters unlikely. 

The authorities’ response to protests in Moscow – initially against the disqualification of independent candidates in the September City Council election – was meant to be overwhelming. Over the course of three successive weekends police, riot police and the special forces of the National Guard descended upon the capital and arrested more than two thousand protesters and passers-by, regardless of age, physical condition and previous actions. News about the brutality of law enforcement, from policemen beating up peaceful protesters lying on the ground and punching an already arrested women in the guts to prosecutors seeking to strip a young couple of the custody of their one-year-old, spread far and wide. This was, by all appearances, intentional. The harsh treatment of the protesters together with the simultaneous sham festivals in Moscow to coincide with the protests seemed like an attempt to trivialise the protests and scare people into staying home.

Yet, on 10 August around 60,000 people marched in Moscow in defiance of the authorities’ heavy-handedness, in an admirable display of civic courage and the biggest such demonstration since the 2011-12 Bolotnaya protests. The government-controlled media did its utmost to ignore the protests, which, truthfully, have not yet become an undisputable game-changer in Russian politics. But they seem to be edging closer to that and if there was one takeaway from last week’s march, it was that the government’s crackdown does not seem to have the desired effect.

Why then can we expect more of the same?

First, as Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center pointed out, 2021, the next Duma election, which will elect the legislature sitting at the end of Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term in 2024, is inconveniently close and any leniency in Moscow could become a precedent that the so-called “non-systemic” opposition, but also actors within the political elite (in a broad sense) may use. The party system is almost definitely going to undergo some changes as the popularity of the United Russia party is hitting historic lows and an ever-growing number of Russians reject all “systemic” parties, but it is a shared interest of the ruling elite that these changes are under control. The most interesting and visible conflict within the elite that the protests amplified is a growing rupture between the National Guard and the police, which Mark Galeotti mentioned. Parliaments and city assemblies are to control; political disputes are to be settled by the security services.

Not that there is no untapped potential in the protests for an adventurous political entrepreneur. Only no one presently knows how much there is. One has to wonder how vividly Mikhail Gorbachev’s experiment of trying to co-opt popular sentiments to sideline rivals only to cause the whole system come crushing down, lives with Russia’s political elite, many of whom came of age politically in that era. While some – like the Irkutsk region’s Communist senator Vyacheslav Markayev who criticised the police action – may venture to open a communication path towards the protesters, they are likely to remain exceptions.

Second, the political elite cannot communicate with the protest movement for the exact same reason that links last year’s regional protests with this year’s upheaval in Moscow: a serious crisis of political responsibility, which – while Russia’s economy is recovering and public services are not terrible everywhere – has produced poor governance across the country with emaciated regions led (with some notable exceptions) by governors wielding no political authority, with a rubber-stamp government that hardly participates in the preparation of or decision-making on the policies that it supposedly implements, with hollowed-out institutions whose real powers were outsourced to ‘adhocrats’ and opaque configurations of security elites. In this system almost every crisis requires the magic hand of the president, the only visible and tangible political authority, from rigging an election in the Primorsky Krai, to stopping the construction of a church in Yekaterinburg. In this system, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin could not possibly start a dialogue with protesters because although he was elected by Muscovites, he is not accountable to them and his political future does not depend on them. Many pointed out Sobyanin’s U-turn from “Moscow’s baron Hausmann” to a ruthless operator helping the violent crackdown on Muscovites. But this misses the point. In fact, Sobyanin has been doing the exact same thing since 2011: pacifying a restive Moscow by any means necessary.

Ideally, the protests in Moscow could lead to incremental and possibly momentous changes in Russia’s political system. For this, however, people with influence should talk to people on the streets or at least listen to them. In a system that hollows out institutions of political representation and rewards only ruthless project managers who are only accountable to their superiors, such people are rare, if they exist at all. This might be the most important question of the coming year.

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